What a tragic week in which to watch Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Still raw and thoughtful after the week of intense public commentary on George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murder, a San Francisco audience wept tonight at the Metreon as they saw a familiar scene come to life: A brutal shooting of a handcuffed man, in grainy cellular phone footage first, and in dramatized high definition much later.
The film walks us through a day in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man, teetering between two courses of life: Responsibility, a steady job, and a stable relationship with his young daughter’s mother, and a life of drugs in the street that led him to a stint in San Quentin the previous year. His family and friends, and especially his girlfriend, come to life, not in an idealized, canonized, haloed poster image for a demonstration, but like any of us: Living, loving, making mistakes, having fun, getting angry, trying, failing, succeeding.
We could talk about the comparison between the dramatized series of events and what actually happened. And we could remember the moving op-ed from the doctor who treated Grant, and the aftermath for BART Police, and the broader meaning of the taser defense, and about the difference between protest and riots, but we already talked about all that during the events and the trial. And now it’s time to look at the movie as what it is – a work of art that seeks to tell us something important.
Here is what I am glad the movie does not tell us: That we should canonize Oscar Grant as the saint of the struggle against police abuse of power and racialized violence. or that his life was exemplary and flawless.
The movie also does not tell us this: That Oscar Grant is nobody, his life not worth remembering except for the event of his death.
Instead, the movie tells us what we should all remember: That Oscar Grant should be canonized. As all of us should – every single one of us. Because every human life is valuable and precious and has intrinsic value. Grant’s, and Mehserle’s, and Martin’s, and Zimmerman’s. And because the measure of a life is not its death or its achievements, but the small magic it works in our loved ones and friends and family members. In the little deeds, like dropping off our kids at school, or going to the supermarket to buy ingredients for gumbo, or at the greeting cards aisle picking a silly card for a relative.
And yet–even though all lives are precious and valuable–some lives are worth less than others. David Baldus‘ study of the death penalty indicated the way prejudice operates through the race of the victim; black victims’ murderers, whether white or black, fared more leniently than their counterparts with white victims. If you will, this is where the prevalent “let them kill each other” approach comes from. And a grim reminder that underenforcement, like overenforcement, is not race blind.
Far from offering overt racial preachy monologues, the film exposes the experience of an African American working class life in a way that weaves the racial experience intrinsically into the minutiae of one’s day, in life and in death. One’s consciousness need not be raised for one to experience the subtle effects of race on one’s life. In a humorous scene, Grant’s sister asks him to buy a card on her behalf for her mother’s birthday. “Don’t buy a white card,” she asks, a reminder that even in the Hallmark aisle there are symbols and themes and that even cute pastel slogans speak to different life experiences.
And, through the fighting scene with a former fellow inmate on BART that led to Grant’s apprehension and shooting at the station, the movie tells us one more thing: That the experience of imprisonment is toxic, poisonous, and that life on the outside is permeable to life on the inside. That animosities behind bars have a way of affecting interactions on the outside. That an imprisonment experience that offers no growth, no hope, no betterment, promises only pain and tragedy.
Many thanks to the many friends who came with me to see the film tonight for their wise words.