When I walked into the theater, I still wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Just days after the outrageous acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the subsequent protests here in Oakland, I didn’t know if I could handle watching the Bay Area’s version of Trayvon Martin killed on screen. Again.
Lucky for me – and for America –‘Fruitvale Station’ provides a path forward in these times of grief and rage. The movie is a beautiful, tragic telling of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, the charming, complicated young black man who was shot by police in Oakland in 2009. Brilliantly written and directed by 27-year-old Oakland native, Ryan Coogler, ‘Fruitvale Station’ does what the prosecution failed to do for Trayvon Martin during the recent trial: it humanizes a martyr.
The film, which opens nationwide this week, begins with the real-life cellphone footage of Oscar’s death at the hands of a white policeman at the Fruitvale BART train station. From there, the movie flashes back to earlier in the day, as Oscar (in a masterful performance from Michael P. Jordan) makes New Years resolutions with his girlfriend, tries to get his job back after being fired, and plays freeze tag with his four-year-old daughter. Each step in the day is a step closer to his eventual demise, none being more painful than when his lovingly protective mom (Octavia Davis) directs him to take BART that night so that he’ll “be safe.”
Coogler’s direction explicitly, and expertly, counters the competing myths of Oscar Grant – the innocent black saint or the violent black thug – instead showing us the caring, imperfect, but ultimately hopeful man that Oscar really was. As Coogler said in an interview (echoing President Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin), “I was the same age as Oscar, same skin tone, same style of clothing…that could have been me. His story is my story…and that story is a complicated one.”
That gray area is what makes the film, by giving Oscar back his own truth. We see Oscar make quick friends with strangers, even getting his grandma on the phone to offer her special catfish recipe to a random woman at the store. We see him in jail, and later selling his last bit of weed (who hasn’t done that in the Bay Area?), but at the end of the day, he’s a decent young man trying to do right by the three generations of women – mother, girlfriend, and daughter – in his life.
And through it all, Oscar wears his big, XXL hoodie. The same type of hoodie that Trayvon Martin wore when he went out for a pack of Skittles. The same type of hoodie that I, white boy, wore when I was that age, but never got stopped by the police or self-proclaimed neighborhood watchdogs. Over the last year, that piece of clothing has become the hashtag symbol for the movement, but what the film does so powerfully is look beyond the hoodie and see the man. And therein lies the question I couldn’t stop wondering as I walked out of the theater:
What would have happened in Florida that night if George Zimmerman had seen ‘Fruitvale Station’ first?
Would Zimmerman have realized it wasn’t one of “those fucking punks” (as he called Trayvon on the 911 call) but a teenage kid walking back to his dad’s house?
Maybe he would have followed the police’s instructions to stay inside his house.
Maybe he would have even offered Trayvon a ride home.
Or maybe he would have done exactly what he did do.
I don’t know if a movie can turn a vigilante into a humanitarian, but I do know that I want every white person in America to go see ‘Fruitvale Station.’ If you live in Florida, go see it twice. (Which won’t be easy – the movie isn’t playing anywhere around Zimmerman’s hometown of Sanford. I guess ‘The Hangover 3’ needs another week.)
In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, there is so much work and organizing to do.
We can support the Dream Defenders, currently occupying the Florida Governor’s office demanding a repeal of the heinous Stand Your Ground law.
We can show solidarity with the prisoners in California who are on hunger strike against inhumane conditions, and the immigrants in Texas fighting deportation from the only country they know.
We can fight for justice for Ramarley Graham in New York, and Darius Simmons in Milwaukee, and Alan Blueford, a good student at the high school I work at in Oakland who was killed last year by cops just weeks before graduation.
And yes, we can see a movie.
‘Fruitvale Station’ is not the salve to America’s racial wounds, but it puts those wounds out there in the open in a way we can’t ignore any longer. It’s on us to pick up the medicine and start the healing.