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By Merle Bertrand | September 28, 2004

Inspired by the blues classic “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday, “Strange Fruit” is an urban history lesson told from the point of view of a young graffiti artist and her grandmother. At night, young Billie (Nichols from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) spray-paints walls with the image of the purple gas mask she dons as her identity. She considers herself an outlaw artist (as do many “taggers”), but her writer brother calls her “a juvenile delinquent with a costume” and urges her to find a canvas. What he means, or seems to mean, is that she should find a message.
Billie’s Grandmother worries about her, and tells her a story about a boy she knew growing up, who was lynched as a vandal for daring to carve his name on trees owned by white folks. Grandma fears this might happen, if only symbolically, to Billie, who is too talented to remain a “mere vandal”.
The final frame of the film relays the ultimate message – that graffiti can be art, provided the artist has something to say. (In fact, if I had any criticism to level against “Strange Fruit”, its that we don’t see quite enough of the graffiti murals created by “Thellus”.)
If you’re just running around the streets “tagging” walls with your signature, you’re pretty much wasting your time. The problem is, authorities at large don’t make the distinction between art and vandalism, which is where Billie’s danger zone lies.
A student production from the University of Southern California, Browne and crew work hard to make “Strange Fruit” a poignant film, making perfect use of the Holliday song. It never lapses into schmaltz, the emotions never feel forced. It’s also beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. Everyone involved deserves to go on to bigger things.

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