I love film. I love watching films in a nice theater with deep comfortable seats and equipped with an audio system that will allow the soundtrack to encircle me. I have found films healthy food for my intellect, enhancing for my literary sense, challenging for my mind, directing for my reading. But I can recall few films that can begin to meet the power or the challenging intellectual and emotional impact of Fruitvale Station.
If you had asked me before I entered the theater whether I was aware of racism in our society, I would have said, quite reflexively, in fact, “of course.”
However, driving home after watching the power of this film, I recalled what had seemed to me at the time an embarrassing, but not so important incident. Leaving a medical facility while under the influence of anesthetic after a medical procedure, I was assaulted by a man, although not injured. When I reported the incident to the facility staff, the first question posed:”Was he black?”
I did not realize then that because I did not query back, “Why, does it make a difference?” I was complicit in a racist exchange.
In many discussions, in many places, at many times, I might have posed as a person who had special insight into “the race question.” I might have told you that I learned about white privilege early when I attended a 1% white elementary school in West Philadelphia. I probably would have shared how it was through the indiscriminate brutality of the nuns towards the children of color and their simultaneous treatment of the white children as “special,” that I saw the ugly face of racism and the embarrassing privilege of being white in the U.S. I possibly might have recounted my early experience of friendship with black children, exchanging and sharing snacks, believing this represented my own surmounting of our society’s racial divide. Or I might have opened up about the magical friendship which I shared with my best friend in college, Sheena. Sadly, this friendship was lost in those politically charged days of the late 1970s when identity politics was such a personal struggle. Measuring identity as a black woman and its room for friendship with white women took a terrible toll, yet this was one of the tasks which could become paramount in our young world where we claimed, “the personal is political,” convinced that we understood.
If you had asked me about racists, I most likely would have told you about my family of origin: Irish immigrants and their offspring who spouted hateful statements as the civil rights struggle, the assassinations, the legal changes unfolded before our eyes as I grew up in the 1960’s.
Yes, I was quite comfortable with that my liberal credentials allowed me understanding of the “race question” in the United States.
Not anymore. Not after experiencing Fruitvale Station.
The film has been criticized by bastions of conservative propaganda as “whitewashing” the factual life of Oscar Grant, who was executed by a white Oakland police officer in 2008. This criticism is almost the point.
Fruitvale Station bases its plot on the life of Oscar Grant the day before he was murdered. It is implicit in the film’s action that we cannot know whether every word uttered, every embrace exchanged, each flash of anger, each moment of kindness is “real” or fictional.
We have learned that fifty people can witness the same event and report it entirely differently. Do we not understand at the very least that one person’s honest statement of fact can differ dramatically from that of another?
What matters in this film is not that this WAS the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, but that this could have been the experience of Mr. Grant or any one of the young black men sacrificed on the United States’ altar of racism.
As I watched the film, I slowly traveled a path of new awareness as to how white supremacy infiltrates the life of a young black man, his family, and his friends. From the fear he sees in the eyes of a white woman whom he addresses without knowing her, to the realization he accepts that for an unconnected, disrespected young black male, there will be no second chances, I saw reflections of myself, my family, my friends. The search for a greeting card with black faces, while perhaps a cliché, in this film is a moment of transcendent understanding. The image of a dead pit-bull is heartbreaking as we comprehend that we are often easily aroused to sympathy for abused animals even as we are reluctant to engage in a conversation about the depth of the racial divide.
Perhaps most stunningly the film moved my consciousness from the screen to the theater. Here, the audience for this film in an upscale art house theater was at least 50% people of color. Never before had I shared a film experience with such a diverse audience in this cinema generally populated with white, urban film buffs.
Ultimately we are left with a true image, that of Oscar Grant’s child. It is this achingly poignant image that testifies to the truth of this narrative. In the child’s face, we see pain passed on to another generation that will struggle in a society ravaged by a humiliating racial history. The natural movement of her eyes escaping the camera affirms that it matters not whether Oscar Grant in fact decided to “go straight” the day before he died. It matters only that, as real-time video captured in this case, a young black father was targeted to the exclusion of any white train riders. He was accused of crime based on the color of his skin, what that skin color means to whites. What matters is the brutality that was witnessed and tolerated by hundreds of onlookers who lacked the courage to intervene. What matters is the shot that ended another life which had limited chances to change the narrative he entered at the moment of his birth.
I left that theater with a sense of shame. Shame at my skin color, shame at my middle class life, shame at my education, and shame at my foolishness believing I could even begin to understand.
(This post was first written in January, 2013 when the film appeared in theaters. The film is now available on DVD.)