As the title of the new investigative documentary What Killed Michael Brown? appears on screen, its orange letters startlingly recall the font that was used for Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 neo-Blaxploitation film Jackie Brown. More than coincidence, this reveals the motives of director Eli Steele and his father-collaborator Shelby Steele. Their analysis of the Ferguson, Mo., incidents involving Michael Brown, which sparked the social upheaval perpetrated by Black Lives Matter, goes beyond historical facts to confront their roots in culture. The Steeles’ real subject, like Tarantino’s, is racial narrative.
This inquiry starts with the media’s immediate control of the Michael Brown incidents: Brown’s assault on policeman Darren Wilson; assertions about Brown’s “hands up, don’t shoot” surrender; and officer Wilson’s shooting of him. Rather than searching to find guilt and innocence, the doc follows Shelby Steele as he reflects on his personal experience as a black youth and community organizer in the Seventies. A witness to the history of race politics before Michael Brown was born, he examines what it was that precipitated 18-year-old Michael Brown’s behavior and the circumstances of his death.
“What was more remarkable than the tragedy itself was the explosion of controversy that surrounded it,” Steele observes. “Black militants of every stripe, national black leaders, politicians, mainstream media, cable news, even the president and attorney general of the United States all became players in the Ferguson story.”
Archival video records that story’s almost spontaneous mass responses, followed by the quickly calculated protests. Already in Ferguson, we saw the use of pyrotechnic explosives during riots — a now-familiar tactic of the recent mysteriously organized anarchists. “There was something unconvincing about all these protests,” Steele comments. “The anger seemed ritualized, almost choreographed.”
In the larger narrative that emerges, Michael Brown, Shelby Steele, and the entire U.S. were affected by long-standing, post-civil-rights-era policies. Government involvement had an impact on how Americans perceived themselves, socially and as individuals capable of forging their own destinies — “recruit[ing] people into the welfare system . . . destroy[ing] their equity and creat[ing] a permanent black underclass.” This brings the Steeles to closer scrutiny of the social and spiritual disenfranchisement in the Michael Brown story.
A sympathetic interviewee goes beyond “blaming the victim” and muses, “If Michael Brown had a sense of his own significance and his own importance — and he valued his life — he wouldn’t take the chance of risking it. . . . What demons were inside him?” Here’s where the Steeles’ investigation shifts into a learned empathy that is unique in contemporary journalism. They expose ABC’s George Stephanopoulos for interviewing Darren Wilson under the presumption of going after the truth while his true goal was to lay a media trap, flipping the practice of blaming the victim.
“Ferguson was a microcosm of this country,” says a black female activist, but the Steeles discover irony in that pronouncement — the fact that Michael Brown (shown in his cap-and-gown school photo) was instantly inducted into the same bum-martyr fraternity that idolizes Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, ad infinitum. (The cultural pressure of this narrative causes even Shelby Steele to opine prematurely on George Floyd; his comments for the doc no doubt came before the release of the extenuating arrest video).
Fact is, there is a Michael Brown mythology, as indicated by that Jackie Brown–style title graphic. Perhaps unwittingly, the Steele duo evokes the 1744 English nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” This folkloric ditty, about heroism and shifting political power (honoring either the Robin Hood legend or the end of Sir Robert Walpole’s government), derived from the complex human awareness passed down through the ages as a children’s rhyme.
Although the Steeles don’t delve into the folklore of black rebellion wherein successive generations act upon the previous generation’s experience of racism, the Steeles seem keenly aware of the folkloric delusions that attach to historical accounts. Shelby Steele calls it “poetic truth, a distortion of the actual truth.”
Based on the ethics of Shelby Steele’s bootstrap black conservatism, What Killed Michael Brown? is a rare doc that opposes the media’s current trend of fabricating race and “justice.” Shelby Steele rightly suspects that term and so redefines it: “There’s already a framework of meaning in place. You don’t think so much as step into that meaning.” The new, rejiggered excuses and expectations of racialized justice are what killed Michael Brown.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the filmmakers are father and son.