One would think that if the subject of a documentary was the possible lynching of a young black man in a bleak southern town, it might be a good idea to introduce that story sometime before, say, the first half hour or so of the film. You know, the basic “Who, What, When, Where” school of journalism, and all that. Director Regis Trigano apparently feels otherwise, however, because although the alleged suicide by hanging of 32 year old Ray Golden is the ostensible subject of his listless documentary “Strange Fruit,” it seemingly takes Trigano forever to even bring it up.
Instead, he spends the vast majority of the film on Shirley, an unemployed, uneducated mother, and her brood of seven surviving children. After an interminable amount of time depicting the appalling conditions in which this family, and indeed everyone in the ghetto-ized, glaringly misnamed town of Belle Glade, Florida, must endure, we finally get around to learning about Golden’s suspicious death. Ruled a suicide by the predominantly white law enforcement community, unanswered questions, almost reflexive suspicion and simmering racial tensions soon lead Golden’s family to believe that foul play was involved; foul play that must be being ignored by the racist cops.
This is, of course, the type of tragic but fairly typical scenario often seen on newsmagazine shows like “Dateline” and “20/20” or, more commonly, on cable network true crime shows. Trite, formulaic, and exploitative as these tragic nuggets are, at least the producers of these shows know how to tell a clear and cohesive story.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be true in the case of “Strange Fruit.” There’s no real reason to spend so much time on Shirley and her family, save to illustrate the desperate plight of America’s poor and uneducated…and that’s a documentary for a different day. All that it accomplishes in this case is to distract from the story at hand.
It’s possible Trigano felt he had to pad his film with all the depressing urban blight on display because there simply wasn’t much to the case to begin with. Half-hearted attempts to play the race card work about as well for the film as they did in the case itself, leaving “Strange Fruit” bereft of much legitimate controversy or real conflict.
As a result, tragic though Ray Golden’s case may be, “Strange Fruit” is simply the pits.