AUSTIN, Texas — Even before the start of the screening and world premiere of “Stranger Fruit,” the documentary about the shooting of Michael Brown, the room was charged with emotion.
Filmmaker Jason Pollock, unannounced and without a microphone Saturday at the South by Southwest Film Festival, introduced Lezley McSpadden, mother of the unarmed 18-year-old Brown, the recent high school graduate who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, setting off a wave of protests in Ferguson, Mo.
“This is not fun for us. This is not a glamorous premiere. We do not want to be doing this,” Pollock said, his voice cracking.
“She’s a grieving mother. She did not have to be the leader of a movement right now,” he said. “She did that for us. And has been doing that for us ever since her son was murdered.”
The film attempts to piece together the events that led to the encounter between Brown and Wilson, and the subsequent work of the legal system that saw no charges filed against Wilson.
In particular, it looks to reframe the narrative of Brown’s last day, including the altercation at a local convenience store just before Brown’s encounter with Wilson. In a video widely distributed after the shooting, Brown is seen leaving the store without paying for a package of cigarillos.
A police radio call would go out about a robbery at the convenience store, giving a description of Brown.
A second video, which according to Pollock is seen for the first time in “Stranger Fruit,” shows Brown at the same convenience store in the early-morning hours of that same day, around 1 a.m. on Aug. 9. As posited by the film, Brown appears to trade something, possibly a small bag of marijuana, for what would become the fateful cigarillos. Brown leaves his package behind the counter, leading to the film’s theory that the later video shows him returning to retrieve his items, rather than taking them in the first place.
“Today is a historic day, because you are the first people to see that Mike did not rob the store,” Pollock said in the question-and-answer session after the film. “I’ve been protecting it so that it came out correctly within the context of the facts of the case and it wasn’t bastardized by our media. But it does prove the coverup because (the police) had that video the whole time, and they knew that Mike didn’t steal anything from that store, and they told the whole world that he was a robber, right after they murdered him.”
At a Monday news conference, however, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch said of Pollock, “What this guy’s putting out is just nonsense.”
He denied that the store clerks were involved in any kind of drug deal.
“There was certainly an attempt to barter for these goods,” McCulloch said. “There was no transaction between Mr. Brown and the store employees.”
Jay Kanzler, attorney for Ferguson Market & Liquor, said Pollock didn’t show the full sequence of events in the new security footage. “There was no deal. There was no pot left behind. There was no understanding,” Kanzler said to CNN. “They gave the pot back. And there was this argument.”
At a panel discussion on the film at SXSW on Monday, Pollock, appearing with several supporters of Brown, including the teen’s father, Michael Brown Sr., said the group was a little late because it had been watching the CNN interview with McCulloch. “We literally walked over here to respond to Mr. McCulloch’s ridiculous claims,” Pollock said.
“The film is really what we want people to be talking about, which is why we decided to release the tape early and get it out of the way,” Pollock said. “The film is about the physical evidence at Canfield (Drive),” where the shooting took place. “The ballistic evidence, the forensic evidence, the audiotape, the blood evidence. If Michael Brown was a white kid, Darren (Wilson) would have been in jail three years ago.”
Of McCulloch and Kanzler’s disputes with Pollock’s interpretation of the film’s newly seen video, the director said Brown “hands the bag back over the counter, and you see them put the bag back behind the counter. I fade to black at that point. I did not feel it was necessary to show any more in my movie because the exchange was over. Michael had left the store.”
After Brown exits the store, Pollock continued, “they take the cigarillos out of the bag. But they didn’t give the weed back. The exchange already took place.”
In the later store footage, the director continued, Brown “was going back to get the product that he was given (earlier), which you can clearly see him being given. They put the cigarillos in the bag themselves, and they hand the bag that they created over the counter. So don’t tell me that he robbed the store. And don’t tell me that they were asking for their product back because he wasn’t supposed to take it. Because they gave it to him, on camera. And we can all see it. And anyone with two eyes and a heart who’s not a bigot can see what happened.”
Since the film’s premiere, Pollock has appeared on many TV shows, most spectacularly in a heated exchange on CNN’s “New Day.” At Saturday’s screening, where Pollock was joined onstage after the film by McSpadden; Bernard Ewing, Brown’s uncle, and Patrick Green, mayor of Normandy, Mo., a neighboring town to Ferguson, he seemed to anticipate the response his assertions would spark: “Today is the day that we get to start fighting back with the actual facts of this case,” he said. “Because our media failed us.”
The quiet, spellbinding presence of McSpadden on Saturday was a strong anchor in the room, a reminder that this story is about the loss of a young life. Last year she published a memoir, “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy and Love of My Son Michael Brown.” She’s also been active with the group Mothers of the Movement alongside mothers of others killed by police or gun violence.
She spoke only once from the stage, saying, “That was my first child, my firstborn son, and it hurt me to watch him learn how to walk and ride a bike and fall and hurt himself during those times, so to get to see and know that my son would never walk again has driven me to this point,” she said.
“And I do have three other children, one being a 12-year-old son. If I don’t fight for him, nobody is. I’m his mother. …
“Even if we get a little bit of justice that’s not enough, because this should have never happened. … I want everyone to know the truth, and it’s brought me here and to this.”