The recent spate of racially charged police incidents, including the killing of unarmed black men from Sacramento to New York City, speaks to the urgency of a number of new projects seeking truth and reconciliation between the past and present. The newly opened National Memorial of Peace and Justice and its accompanying Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, confront the long and dark history of lynching in the United States. Stranger Fruit, Jason Pollock’s documentary about the police shooting of Michael Brown four summers ago, was released nationally on April 3 and will premiere on Starz next month.
The film’s investigation of Brown’s killing invites us to grapple with a difficult legacy, and in so doing, challenges us to pursue a more just future.
Stranger Fruit opens with scenes of Ferguson, Missouri, protests set to Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 song. It reconsiders how Brown’s lifeless body came to rest on smoldering blacktop for over four hours in the Missouri heat, pointing to glaring contradictions in the official story. And it raises the possibility that local law enforcement obstructed justice by lying to federal investigators after the grand jury non-indictment.
The official story in question goes like this: Darren Wilson suspected Brown of robbing a convenience store before stopping him and Dorian Johnson in the street. An angry and aggressive Brown initiated a struggle over the officer’s gun. To protect himself, Wilson discharged his weapon twice, wounding Brown in his hand. Brown took off running as Wilson gave chase. After a distance of 180 feet, Brown turned back toward Wilson, charged at him “like a demon,” and was then shot six or seven more times as Wilson emptied his clip.
The Department of Justice stated that federal agents canvassed 300 residences; interviewed dozens of witnesses, including local officials; and collected physical evidence, autopsy reports, cell-phone records, and e-mails. “In so doing, we assessed the witnesses’ demeanor, tone, bias, and ability to accurately perceive or recall the events of August 9, 2014.”
Numerous witnesses said Michael Brown did not attack Darren Wilson and attempted to surrender. But federal officials stated that none of these witnesses, most of whom were Brown’s black neighbors, were “credible.” Their statements were deemed inconsistent or “contradicted by the physical and forensic evidence.”
You might assume that federal officials applied the same standards to local law enforcement too. They did not.
The film shows three instances in which police gave official statements to the press or the grand jury that are incompatible with the final version. The highest-ranking officer, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, gave the first press statement, hours after Brown’s death. He described “the entire scene” of the shooting as occurring within “about 35 feet” and involving a “couple” of shots. “It was more than a couple but I don’t think it was ah, ah many more than that,” he said. “We’ve done a very comprehensive canvas.” According to the physical evidence and ballistics, all 12 shell casings were documented and recovered. And the crime scene stretched 180 feet, not 35.