“Stranger Fruit,” a documentary film that debuted last weekend at SXSW reveals previously unseen security footage of Michael Brown that the filmmaker claims casts doubt on the police narrative that the Ferguson, Missouri, teen robbed a convenience store minutes before he was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014.
For more than two years, authorities in Missouri have deployed the robbery narrative as part of their justification for the actions of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who said he saw Brown walking in the middle of the street that August afternoon, realized he fit the suspect’s description in a nearby theft and fired his gun in self-defense.
Brown was hit seven times.
Surveillance footage of that alleged robbery was released within days of the shooting on Aug. 9, 2014. It showed Brown, a recent high school graduate, entering the Ferguson Market & Liquor, approaching the counter and then, after several moments, reaching for cigarillos. Brown leaves the store with a handful of them, shoving a store clerk who tries to block him.
Brown advocates have long argued that the alleged robbery footage was released only to cast doubt on his character and fuel the narrative that Wilson’s decision to pull the trigger that day was justified.
But “Stranger Fruit,” created by documentarian and activist Jason Pollock, suggests an alternative narrative to the one police have put forward.
It claims the alleged robbery wasn’t a robbery at all, but the aftermath of a prearranged exchange gone wrong between Brown and a group of store clerks.
And, Pollock says, he has video to prove it.
His new theory relies heavily on an interaction 11 hours before Brown was killed, inside the same convenience store that he allegedly robbed on Aug. 9, 2014.
The footage, which the director shared with the New York Times, appears to show Brown entering Ferguson Market & Liquor just after 1 a.m. on Aug. 9, walking around the convenience store and then handing something – which the filmmakers believe to be a small bag of marijuana – to the clerks behind the counter. They inspect the bag and appear to smell it, the footage shows, then hand Brown what the documentary claims is a plastic bag containing two large boxes of cigarillos.
Brown turns to leave, the new video shows, then passes the cigarillos back across the counter for what the documentary characterizes as safekeeping.
With this new early morning interaction for context, Pollock and Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, make a bold claim: Brown didn’t rob the convenience store minutes before he died.
In reality, they claim, he was coming to collect his cigarillos that he left behind the night before.
“What you’re going to see on this video is what they didn’t show us happened, that clarifies that there was an understanding,” McSpadden says in the documentary clip obtained by the Times. “There was some type of exchange … one thing for another.”
It’s unclear if, or how, the revelation that this new footage exists could affect the case. After an investigation, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, fueling a second wave of nationwide protests over the case and mobilizing the greater Black Lives Matter movement.
But in the documentary clip and in interviews after its debut, Pollock made clear that he felt the local authorities’ decision to withhold the 1 a.m. surveillance footage was an unjustified misstep.
In an interview with the New York Times, Pollock called it a “suppression of evidence.”
“What this video shows is that they lied to the world about what happened,” Pollock said. “They wanted to make Mike look bad so they put out half a video to destroy his character in his death.”
After the film’s debut, local authorities told the Times the unseen footage was not released because it was irrelevant to their investigation.
Jay Kanzler, an attorney for the Ferguson Market employees, told the Times that his clients strongly dispute the documentary’s characterization of events.
“There was no transaction,” Kanzler told the Times. “There was no understanding. No agreement. Those folks didn’t sell him cigarillos for pot. The reason he gave it back is he was walking out the door with unpaid merchandise and they wanted it back.”
Pollock obtained footage of the early morning store visit only after stumbling upon a written account of its existence in police reports. He characterized his discovery as “stunning” in the documentary.
“I couldn’t believe what I had read. Michael was in the store the night before he died, and St. Louis County saw the videotape, and they didn’t tell us,” he says in the film. “Well guess what, St. Louis County. I’ve got the videotape.”
But Pollock doesn’t explain how he got hold of the footage, not in the documentary clip or in interviews with the Times and CNN.
Ferguson police handled the investigation at the convenience store, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and his office focused on the shooting investigation. Belmar said he was not aware of Brown’s first visit to the convenience store on Aug. 9.
Tom Jackson, the embattled former Ferguson police chief who resigned after the shooting, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he hadn’t seen the 1 a.m. surveillance video.
And on Sunday, Ferguson Market co-owner Andy Patel – the man Brown shoved in the alleged robbery video minutes before the fatal shooting – told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Brown “grabbed the cigarillos and stole them.”
Patel also told the Post-Dispatch that he wasn’t at the convenience store at 1 a.m. when the so-called “exchange” between Brown and the clerks took place. If there was a transaction, Patel said, he was not aware of it.
Pollock, a protege of Michael Moore, makes no attempt to hide his opinions on the case, often using the hashtag #JusticeForMikeBrown when discussing the film on social media. He told CNN he moved to Ferguson permanently two years ago and began the documentary project, which tells Brown’s story through the eyes of his family.
On Saturday, the day “Stranger Fruit” debuted at SXSW and the New York Times published a clip of the film, Pollock tweeted: “I’ve waited a long time to release this information to the world. Today is a big day for the history of Mike Brown.”
“Stranger Fruit” is a play off the poem “Strange Fruit,” a film about lynchings made famous by Billie Holiday’s song of the same name.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post. Katie Mettler wrote this story.