Models Monday: Fruitvale Station

I just came from seeing Fruitvale Station. The film offers a sensitive portrayal of the last day in 22-year-old Bay area resident Oscar Grant’s life. Having apprehended Grant and several other black and brown skinned passengers after a scuffle on a BART train, Police Officer Johannes Mehserle’s fatally shot Grant, claiming he mistook his own gun for his taser. Contrary to Kyla Smith’s troubling review of Fruitvale Station, I thought Ryan Coogler’s debut film was quite well done. Smith essentially charges Coogler with being manipulative by making Grant appear warmer and gentler than his criminal past suggests. This troubling assessment ignores Coogler’s obvious efforts to create a black male character whose likely and unsurprising end was not matched by a depiction of his assumed depravity. Grant, who Michael B. Jones masterfully plays, has flaws and the film engages them. While Smith acknowledges Coogler’s attempt to complicate Grant through an engagement with his former incarceration, former infidelity, and his failure to take full responsibility for himself, which accounts for him being unemployed, Smith contends that the film “tries to fit a halo on its subject, seemingly to play up the audiences sympathies.” As evidence, Smith points to every detail of Grant’s petty criminal past expunged from the film’s record. Let’s say that these additional details were added to the script, would Smith expect audiences to conclude that Officer Mehserle was justified in slaying an unarmed man? Smith flatly denies any affirmative conclusion drawn from this question, but he does question the integrity of pleading for justice on Grant’s behalf if doing so depends on the charge that Officer Mehserle’s actions demonstrate racism. In Smith’s estimation, even if Mehserle were racist, it would be irrational for him to carry out his agenda “in front of dozens of people.” Racism, however, doesn’t depend on reason or logic, it works through power, history, custom, and tradition. Sure, there have been efforts to rationalize and justify white supremacy but such attempts are never valid. Officer Mehserle had a much greater understanding of the nation’s low and contemptuous regard for black American life than Smith admits. Officer Mehserle understood that killing a black man wouldn’t cost him very much–and it didn’t: Mehserle spent 11 months of a two year prison sentence for his crime. And like him, George Zimmerman is chillin’…right alongside the four officers acquitted for killing Amadou Diallo and Officer Michael Carey who killed Sean Bell on the morning of his wedding.

Fruitvale Station pays homage to Oscar Grant. The film shows him as a father, a brother, a son, a partner, a friend. The film also reminds me of Hank Willis Thomas’s tribute to his 27-year-old cousin Songha Willis who was shot on February 2, 2000 in the parking lot of a Philadelphia nightclub. In Pitch Blackness, Thomas uses family photographs of Songha in an effort to restore his humanity and with it, the weight and significance of his loss. Rather than allow his cousin to remain a statistic reflecting an expected outcome for black American males, Willis Thomas sought to resurrect the meaningfulness of his cousin’s life through the many photographs of him with people who loved and cared for him. This video features Willis Thomas discussing his work and

how art helped him process his sadness and grief in the wake of his cousin’s murder.

Fruitvale Station shows great sensitivity to the importance of offering audiences an example of black American humanity. Smith’s critique of the film highlights the carelessness with which black American life is often read. From this point of view, Oscar Grant was too good to be true. According to Smith, Coogler’s Oscar Grant has too much humanity and so is a lie; he isn’t thugged out enough. His is an unmerciful view.

You should check out the film, it will piss you off for all the right reasons.

10 thoughts on “Models Monday: Fruitvale Station

  1. I should amend that to not simply say, “disempower or aid the racists,” but the whole matrix, the United States paradigm…because unconscious bias or so-called “reasonable racism” is so deeply imbedded in the national psyche as to implicate all those well-meaning “non-racists” too.

    1. For me, a concern for black life and vibrancy gets entangled with the untimely, violent ways that black folks die in the U.S. It is so important to me to generate meaningful ways of documenting, recovering, and commemorating the lives that racism sets out to destroy. This is not to say,though,that I wholly disagree with Davey D’s approach. I just started reading Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. In it, he asserts that “resistance” is a “broad, clunky, vague, and imprecise” way of rendering the expansiveness of black life. In reflecting on Whitfield Lovell’s art, Quashie writes: “Lovell seems to aim for a balance between the social or public meaning of a person or object, and its intimacy, its human relevance. Where his earlier work created tableaux using full-bodied figures, the aesthetic of juxtaposition in these more recent pieces is what evokes narrative, as if we are seeing the unfolding of a scene of human life, as if more and more of the image will manifest if you look long enough…The key is to let the unexpected be possible.” David D seems to be making a similar claim about such focused attention on how black folk die, which also speaks to what then becomes the accepted public narrative of black life in America. To their point, the lives that black people have made for themselves and the fact that we can experience joy, make love, offer kindness is an accomplishment overlooked given the cultural barriers surrounding the possibility of representing us beyond white supremacist expectations. Instead of letting “the unexpected be possible,” this culture insists on ensuring that we call ourselves by the name they’ve assigned to us. And like Baby Suggs says, “why would I call myself some bill of sale’s name?” Fully recognizing what we have called ourselves deserves attention and greater appreciation. For me then, giving attention to how we die doesn’t have to deny the fact of black verve; when it’s well done, that’s how you feel and absorb the meaningfulness and significance of the loss. I think Hank Willis Thomas does an eloquent job of this in how he portrays his cousin’s murder in Pitch Blackness. EMM

      1. Yes, I agree about HWT’s work. Also, the Quashie book sounds intriguing; I will have to check it out. “…that’s how you feel and absorb the meaningfulness and significance of the loss”–Fruitvale Station accomplishes this. As much as Davey D was anguished by Oscar Grant’s death and the film’s revitalization of what the community went through in its aftermath, I think he could nonetheless appreciate Fruitvale Station, and other meaningful acts of resistance to the hegemonic narrative of criminalized blackness. But I believe a both/and mode of telling our truth is necessary–extending the spectrum within which we measure the valencies of black life. “…letting ‘the unexpected be possible’…”–that is a powerful notion!

        1. Thanks for sharing your views, Sharan. I definitely dig the Quashie book and would love to assign it, but it’s too late in the game for that given where I want to position the text in the class. Instead, I’m going to assign his article, “The Trouble with Publicness: Toward a Theory of Black Quiet.” The article was first published in African American Review, but you can access it through jstor. EMM

  2. The great lie that many white Americans (and some Blacks) seem to have to tell themselves about policing and the so-called justice system, and racism generally, is that, no matter the circumstances, the victims deserve their treatment. We can’t be allowed a complex humanity in the white imaginary…we’re either “wearing a halo” (a serviceable construct which usually involves self-sacrifice for white folks’ benefit) or we’re the monster–or, somewhere in between, dumb beasts, jesters, shadows…

    When my aunt and I were talking about going to see this film, she talked about how hard it would be for her to watch it, and told me about her immense anger at white folks when she went to see “Django….” She sat among a practically all-white audience in downtown Brooklyn, and feared starting an altercation before leaving the theater! So we need to be angered…but then, what to do with all that anger?

    Interestingly, in a recent interview the journalist Davey D said that he and some of his artist friends have decided to not focus on “black death”–to not focus attention on or contribute to the paradigm that dehumanizes us–but to focus, rather, on celebrating black life. Does that reshape the discourse, shift the paradigm, does it disempower the racists or aid them?

  3. I was completely derailed by this film. I knew the outcome and still shock consumed me. Then I was angry…angry at American whiteness that allowed this to happen, angry at myself for not doing more, angry because I have no response.

    1. Thanks for writing.

      It’s a disturbing film indeed. The thing that makes me angry is that you can insert other names of dead black men and the storyline still works.

    1. Good question. I think young people need to see this film. Depending on where you teach, parents might protest this decision, but the dialogue would certainly give you strong evidence of the politics of your work environment. EMM

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