While the nation is immersed in coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, it seems fitting that a film would premiere this weekend in limited markets (New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) that features another racially charged, outrage-inducing incident that occurred in the early morning hours on New Year’s Day 2009. Titled Fruitvale Station—named after a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco/Oakland area—the film recounts the final hours of Oscar Grant III.
Grant, a 22 year-old African American, was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit police who had responded to reports of a fight on one of the trains. The officers detained Grant and a group of his friends on the train’s platform. After several minutes of questioning, Grant, who was laying face down and allegedly resisting arrest, was shot in the back and later succumbed to his injuries.
A huge hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. Two days after its premiere, The Weinstein Group, a major American film studio, picked up the visceral movie. The director, Ryan Coogler, a young, driven, African American filmmaker, is an Oakland native who attended film school at the University of Southern California (USC).
The Big Picture
Thankfully, the film doesn’t focus on the events that transpired on the Fruitvale Station platform. Instead, the filmmaker chose to focus on the complex nature of Grant’s personal life. Specifically, the audience is invited to become insiders. Rather than another news story about a former convict being shot by local authorities, the film humanizes Grant. He has a mother (played by the incomparable Olivia Spencer) who cares deeply for him. He has a family. He’s a father. He has plans for his life. Does he have a criminal record? Yes. But, as Michelle Alexander points out in her enlightening work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are more blacks under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The percentage of black males with criminal records is astronomically higher than any other ethnic group in America. So yeah, the chances of Grant having a criminal record are pretty high.
The Embattled Protagonist
The film paints a picture of an embattled young man. A model citizen one moment—helping others with seemingly insignificant daily tasks—and a brazen, conflicted, young man the next—trying to navigate his post-parole life. But he’s a human being. The film makes viewers encounter our own prejudices when we hear about stories like this on the nightly news. They become dehumanizing after a while. Fruitvale Station ingeniously reintroduces the human element. Michael B. Jordan (affectionately known to many as Wallace from The Wire or Vince Howard from Friday Night Lights) does an excellent job of portraying Grant’s dichotomous existence.
Dangers of Commuting While Black
Imagine walking through the turnstile of an urban metro transit station without knowing it would be your last time traversing the elevated platform. In the film, Grant’s mother encouraged him to take the train. It was safer than navigating the Bay Area streets in the car on New Year’s Eve. Grant relented and took his mother’s advice. He decided to do what millions of people do nationwide daily—become a commuter. The decision proved to be fatal. The conflicting details leading up to the shooting incident pale in comparison to the fact that a handcuffed, unarmed, young, black man was gunned down by authorities while laying face down on the same concrete platform his mother felt was the safer option for her child. Did the officer believe he was using a taser? Was Grant resisting to the degree that he needed to be neutralized? Those questions were for the court (and jury) to decide. (Sidenote: The officer involved in the shooting was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.)
The more important question here is what we can do to erase the stigma we’ve attached to young, black males. To some degree, I’m not exempt from this treatment (though on a smaller scale). One day, while taking the commuter train to Los Angeles to my job in a law office downtown, I ran into one of my seminary professors on the train. I hadn’t taken one of his classes yet, and admittedly I was underdressed, since it was a Friday, but I decided to speak to him, since I’d heard his class was one to take. “Are you __________?” He looked at me square in the eyes and said, “No.” He grasped his bag a little closer and scurried further down the train car.
Hold up. What just happened? I was furious. Didn’t he know I was headed down to my cozy office in downtown Los Angeles to write legal briefs? But that didn’t matter. I made him uncomfortable. I’m sure there were some preconceived notions that I was some kind of threat. At times (and this may have been one of those occasions), ethnic identity drives that threat. I contacted that professor later that day to let him know who I was and why I had spoken to him. He apologized profusely, but why did it come to that? Why did I have to legitimize myself?
My story is nowhere close to being as tragic as what Oscar Grant experienced on that fateful night in January. Was he flawed? Yes. Was he conflicted? Yes. But he was also black. And he was commuting while black. Something that tens of thousands of black professionals do every day. He lost his life doing so. Kudos to Coogler for a film that will generate conversation in America. The proverbial “race relations” elephant in the room has once again reared its ugly head. Will we acknowledge it or continue to move our “furniture” around to accommodate our safe environments? In any event, please go see this film. It will be well worth the price of admission.
Question: What can we do to alleviate the stigma attached to being young and black in America?