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A break-out success at the SXSW Film Festival, Jason Pollock’s new documentary Stranger Fruit revisits the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo., by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on the afternoon of Aug. 9, 2014. Pollock’s film re-examines the 95-second encounter between Brown and Wilson, and Pollock concludes flatly that, even though neither a grand jury nor the Department of Justice brought charges against Wilson, the shooting “was a murder” and Wilson “should be in jail.” But even before the film’s March 11 premiere, Pollock ignited fresh headlines about the case when he released previously unseen convenience store footage.
In the wake of the shooting, the police released security footage of Brown visiting Ferguson Market and Liquor, where he appeared to steal a bag of cigarillos, triggering the call to 911 that led to the police stop. Challenging that narrative, Pollock released another video from the security camera, shot at 1:13 a.m. on Aug. 9 in which Brown makes an earlier visit to the same market, where, according to Pollock’s analysis, he traded a small bag of marijuana for the cigarillos, which he then left at the store, returning later in the day to pick them up. ”I wanted to try to change the trajectory of this case. This new evidence is a huge smoking gun,” says Pollock, who argues the new tape shows that when Brown returned to the store, he was not stealing anything but instead picking up his own package. By knocking down the earlier theory, Pollock wants to put the focus back on the forensic evidence of the encounter between Wilson and Brown.
Responding to the new footage, St. Louis county prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch called a press conference, charging, “What this guy’s putting out is just nonsense.” But Pollock, 35, a former protégé of Michael Moore, returns fire, saying that in light of the new evidence, the case should be reopened and “Bob McCulloch is the one who should be investigated, not Michael Brown.”
What are we looking at in the new footage of Michael Brown’s earlier visit to the convenience store?
What the world now sees is that Michael Brown walks into the store at 1:13 a.m. He trades the store a little bag of weed, and he’s given two boxes of cigarillos in return. The store clerk prepares the bag himself and hands the bag to Michael. Michael takes the bag and is about to leave the store. They’re claiming there was an altercation in that moment, but it’s not an altercation because you can clearly see on the video that when Michael takes the bag and turns around, they’re just standing there. They’re trying to make us believe that was a fight. That wasn’t a fight. If it was a fight, it would look like a fight. Everyone is just standing there. Then Michael turns around and gives them back the bag to leave his stuff. We know he leaves his stuff because the next day he goes back to get his stuff. Do you think that’s a coincidence that he went to get his stuff that he left there the night before? It’s just so obvious. Anybody with a heart, who isn’t full of implicit bias about black people, sees it.
How then does the new tape change what appears to be going on in the previously released tape?
In the tape that we saw, that they decided to show us, he’s going back to get his stuff. He walks into the store politely with his hands behind his back. He leans in to ask for his stuff. He sees his stuff on the counter. He tries to grab it because it’s his. The old guy at the store doesn’t know what’s happening at night, so there’s an altercation. There are some people at the store who knew Michael and knew what was happening that night, but they had to play it like they didn’t know. The store didn’t call 911.
So how did the police get a 911 call?
The call came from someone within the store who were mistaken about what they were seeing. The store was never going to call 911, because they knew he didn’t steal. And the store admitted in 2014 that they never called the cops and they didn’t think it was a big deal, because they know what happened and they’re just shady. What else was actually happening in that store? Everyone barters with the store, Michael wasn’t a drug dealer; trading with the store was very common in the community.
Are you concerned that the controversy about the new tape is overshadowing your documentary?
No, I don’t think it is. The more they hurt themselves by fighting this videotape, the more they help my film, because everybody is going to have to see what’s in the film now. The more they push back and don’t admit what happened with this videotape, the more you have to see Stranger Fruit. And when you see Stranger Fruit, the more you realize, it’s not about the videotape. It’s about the physical evidence, like the forensic evidence, the blood evidence, the audiotape. They don’t want us talking about that stuff because it proves a murder.
How is the confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Brown presented in the film?
So, basically, there’s an altercation at the car when Darren stops Michael in the street for no reason. He then grabs Michael, Michael tries to pull away. Darren then pulls his gun on Michael, he shoots him at the car, he hits Michael on the hand. There’s a bullet wound, a graze wound, on Michael’s hand. Michael and [his friend] Dorian then run down street. Officer Wilson gets out of his car and pursues them, he starts shooting at Michael while he’s running way. Michael then gets hit. On the side of his arm, there’s a bullet wound trajectory that goes from back to front, so we believe that’s the bullet that grazed Michael’s arm while he was running away. And that’s why he turned around and put his hands up. He’s starting to put his hands up and say, “I don’t have anything. I don’t have a gun. I didn’t do anything. Stop shooting at me.” Right as he does that, Wilson just unloads 10 clips into him for the next six-and-a-half seconds. The last two shots go into the top of Michael’s head and one of them came out of his eyeball. That trajectory can only happen if he’s falling over. That’s murder. Whatever they want to say about the car, the chase, the hands-up, whatever it is — you shot him in the head. And every other bullet that he unloaded into him, seven shots hit Michael, none of them would have killed him. But the one in the head, the execution shot, the assassination shot, that’s what did him in. And that’s what Darren should go to jail for, and we all know that.
How did you get the new tape?
I got the tape from doing real investigation journalism. I was there for two years, embedded, I did the work. The media wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t a trending topic. Now, it is again, because somebody did the work. What led me to the tapes was first, I discovered a page in the St. Louis County police report where they admit that Michael Brown walked into the convenience store at 1:13 a.m. So they corroborated and authenticated the tape. And then I got the tape and the time-code at the top of the tape matched the time-code in the report. So I knew it was real. Now, in their report they don’t admit what actually happens, because they didn’t want to tell us. I doubt the grand jury saw that tape. If they didn’t, then this whole case has to be redone and Bob McCulloch is the one who should be investigated, not Michael Brown.
Why did you decide to release it early, before the film premiered?
We put out this videotape because we felt it was such explosive information that we needed to get it out of the way. The videotape that was originally used was a complete distraction tactic. They don’t want us talking about the physical evidence that proves a cop killed Michael Brown in a heinous way and he should be in jail. But what the tape also shows us is that they’ve been tricking us all along. They never gave us the full tapes. Now, they’re trying to call me a tricky editor, they’re using that Michael Moore line on me. But what they’re showing that I edited out takes place after the exchange when Michael Brown leaves the store.
What drew you to this case in the first place?
I was deeply moved by the murder of Michael Brown right when it happened. I was very emotional about seeing the uprising that took place as well as the ridiculous police response to it. My heart was ripped out for Mike. I’ve heard so many people say Mike Brown changed their lives. I was basically running a creative agency in L.A. and had a bunch of films in development. I pretty much put myself in storage and moved to Ferguson around November 2014, right around no indictment. I knew I wanted to make a film about it, but I wasn’t sure of the angle. I wanted to make something appropriate as a white filmmaker. There were a lot of films being made out there, so I basically was listening, helping out, not shooting for a really long time. Then I realized the conversation around Mike’s death was not being talked about. Everybody was talking about the protests and the movement growing from the protests, but nobody was talking about how it all started. Then in March of 2015, when the Department of Justice report came out and finally closed the book on justice, that really set me off. I’d already been developing Ferguson Cover-up, that was the working title for a long time. They put out two reports on one day to trick us: Everyone focused on the Ferguson Report, nobody focused on the Michael Brown Report. Always a distraction factor with these people. Distract, distract, distract from what they don’t want us talking about. So I decided to dig into that other 86-page report, and I spent the last two years dissecting 95 seconds, and I made a 95-minute film about 95 seconds on the street, and I feel that those 95 seconds and unraveling them are very crucial to American history in some ways, because this a moment that changed everything. Brown is an icon, and I feel we live in a post-Ferguson world. Everything changed, everything. I felt it was necessary to correct the narrative around the actual event that sparked what changed things. I felt the media hadn’t done that for Mike. No one had done that for Mike. Why would a student who had just graduated high school do what they said he did? Why would he attack a cop and charge him while he was being shot at 10 times? It didn’t make any sense to me.
What happens now? The case appears closed.
Who knows? We’ve seen a lot of documentaries change cases in the last few years. I wanted to try to change the trajectory of this case. This new evidence is a huge smoking gun. I think the case should be reopened. I think we need to investigate Bob McCullouch and I think we need to investigate the entire St. Louis County system. That’s the other part of the film they don’t want you talking about, how they are all connected, from [former] Gov. Jay Nixon all the way down to Bob McCulloch. It’s an old-white-boy network of St. Louis that has been around ever since slavery, and nothing has changed. For 23 years, according to The Washington Post, Bob McCulloch hasn’t prosecuted one police shooting. So don’t tell me that Michael Brown ever had a chance. Michael’s family is currently in a civil suit, and as I speak to you, Ferguson court is harassing and abusing the family, trying to continue to put Michael on trial, continuing to support the lies. If Hillary Clinton had won, I think we would have had a real chance to reopen this case. But because Donald Trump won, and Jeff Sessions is Attorney General now, I don’t know what is going to happen. But I know we can win in the court of public opinion, and if we win in the court of public opinion, that’s a real victory, because this is a historical event and it’s not going anywhere. We are going to be talking about this forever, so we should at least be talking about it correctly
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Jon M. Chu