Fruitvale Station, the story of Oscar Grant’s tragic death, is out in wide release now. I saw it last week it’s a beautiful movie that tells the story of his last day, death, and brief aftermath of his family and friends grief. The movie is quiet, almost European in the way it lays out Grant’s story, which for me brought to mind other movies and cultural touchstones.
The movie is very much a celebration of family-the one we are born with and the one we make with our community and friends. The majority of the characters are people of color, and while there certainly are conflicts there is such overriding feeling of love and concern that I could not help being reminded of. . . the TV show The Cosby Family. I know that Bill Cosby is considered to be persona non grata for many in the black community for his emphasis on “personal responsibility” and one can take apart The Cosby Show in all kinds of ways. But I think it needs to be said the show was a milestone of sorts-a highly (the highest for years) rated TV show with an exclusively black cast (in terms of the main cast) doing the same kinds of things and facing the same kinds of issues that white people faced. It certainly showed a middle-upper class existence but it was an incredibly positive image of blackness that white people do not see enough of, not to mention that the cast itself off-camera served as positive role models as well. I was thinking this when somebody retweeted to me a picture of the black men in her family, sons, husband, and brothers with the reminder that they were precious. If anti-blackness is a problem, there needs to be more pro-blackness, in all shapes and forms.
The theme of family also made me think of “The River Runs Through It” based on Norman McLean’s novel of the same name. “River” is the story of two brothers in Montana who would take very different paths, one tragically. It takes place in an entirely different culture, time, and location. But family is family, and just as Norman’s brother kept aspects of his life at arm’s length from his family, so does Grant. The movie portrays Grant at a key point in his life, making significant decisions, just beginning to open up to the ones he loves. Not completely, however, as he shields them from important issues in his life. “River” is heavy with these themes as well, as Norman’s father says towards the end of the film, it is the ones we are closest to us that elude us, but we can love them completely, without complete understanding.
The final movie that came to mind is “Clockers” a Spike Lee movie based on the Richard Price novel. I have not seen “Clockers” since it came out more than ten years ago but what I remember was a story of a black man trying to move up and out-and being pulled down by a variety of forces. The story is technically about a murder, but really I found that secondary to the stories of the characters themselves, and how they were managing. Some the problems were certainly systemic in nature, but some were personal. I want to make it clear I completely agree with the narrative that if we want to improve impoverished communities of color we need to talk about broad-based, economic solutions. I know it doesn’t matter what a black man wears if the operating assumption is that he is a criminal, and that parenting skills are of no use if the parents can’t get jobs and truly support their family.
But, there are few things you can do, like show up to work on time. I remember watching “Clockers” and finding the main character reminiscent of the young black men I treated in rehabilitation, post-spinal cord injury. Most had been in gang related activity, I am sure some committed crimes. They were generally friendly, hard-working, nice guys. It was easy to imagine them doing positive things with their lives, it was also easy to see how their own demons pulled them down. You just wondered if they had somebody just to provide a little bit of guidance, and little bit of toughness, could they make things happen. Because you know they have the ability, they are not lacking in intelligence. I understand the greatest problems come the outside, but still you just wish they could pull it together just a bit more.
The movie has Grant at this point-ready to move forward. But of course it was not to be, which is why every scene is touched with a little sadness, as you know it is the last time that thing will happen. The pitch-perfect cast helps the simple, straightforward narrative.
It’s subtle, and not fleshed out, but the role of prisons is also in the movie. It is only in two scenes but it both vividly illustrate the dehumanization of the prison process itself, and how difficult it is to truly leave even when technically you have. It is the violence of these scenes, partially real, partially implied, set against the quiet meditative aspect of most of the movie that make them stand out and stick with you.
Finally there are the police. The obvious question is how does an unarmed, non-threatening person (it’s clear Grant was not aggressive in any way during the police encounter) get killed by a police officer? But in the movie, it’s frustrating simple to see how this happened. I have always thought that a characteristic of a great story with a major conflict (or conflicts) is that there are no villains. I think Fruitvale Station accomplishes this, because, while not excusing the actions in kind of way, I did not see the police as villains. They are not presented as monsters-I think it is completely believable that they did not want to kill Grant and regretted the death. But it is painfully clear, to me anyway, by the way the police chose to manage the situation, the outcome was not only inevitable it was logical. What is seen as the “villain” is the system, which resulted in the process that led up to the death. It is impossible not to ask yourself how could have this been done differently? It really isn’t about the people; it’s the larger issue of how as society we have allowed things to get this point. If we want to live in a world where this kind of thing happens, and probably happens regularly, we need to insist that changes, at every level, happen, and the word reform is really not enough. There needs to be a complete overhaul and everything needs to be on the table.
It’s worth noting that justice, of a sort, was achieved in this case. Major figures resigned, the offending officer did go to jail, if for a short period of time. As imperfect as this was, I can’t help comparing it to Chicago where similar cases have not led to any changes whatsoever. As people grapple with the Zimmerman verdict, as more people come to the understanding that increasing economic inequality hurts people of color disproportionately I can only hope that art like Fruitvale Station can expand people’s consciousness and lead to change.