By David Philips
Ex-con, dope dealer, unemployed, philanderer. Oscar Grant was White America’s worst nightmare.
I am White America.
Of course, I like to think of myself as the other part. The part that doesn’t see black people in hoodies and saggy pants as a threat. The part that knows that loud rap music isn’t the sound of the hooves carrying the four horsemen of the apocalypse down the track. That’s the part I like to believe I belong to.
But today, I saw the movie Fruitvale Station and now I have to reconsider.
Fruitvale Station tells the story of the final day of Oscar Grant’s life. It shows him making up with his girl whom he cheated on. Taking his daughter to pre-school. Trying to get his job back. Ditching a whole bag of weed into the ocean. Going to his mom’s birthday party. Taking the train to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve with his girl and his friends. And finally, taking a bullet in the back from an overzealous cop while lying face down on concrete outside of the train stop.
It gives nothing away to share that last bit. Not only is the film based on a well-known true story, but the shooting is shown at the beginning of the movie before continuing on in a more conventional time line.
It is a remarkable and deceptively simple film. Is Oscar Grant a thug? To some the answer will most certainly be yes. Is he a ne’er-do-well? Yeah, probably. But on the last day of his life he was trying. I suppose that should count for something. As depicted by the endlessly charismatic, Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), we are forced to see him in other ways too. Did he cheat on is girl? Yes he did. He clearly loves her though. A love that is only matched by the depth of feeling he displays for his daughter and his mother.
Oscar knows he’s a fuck up. We know it too. But over the course of 85 minutes, we are forced to see him as more than that. We are shown the sum of all his parts. We see a person. A deeply flawed human being who means well but has a hard time doing well. How did he get caught up in low-level crime? The film never explicitly answers the question. It’s not hard to imagine though. Environmental factors coupled with poor choices, and one day that’s your life. Oscar Grant’s life was a mess. A mess that he was smart enough to be aware of and one he wanted to clean up–even if he wasn’t quite sure how to do so.
So when a relatively minor altercation takes place on the train at Fruitvale Station, resulting in Oscar and his friends ending up with their backs literally against the wall while a cop trying all too hard to prove his manhood escalates the matter instead of diffusing it, the end result is the death of Oscar Grant.
Oscar Grant made many mistakes in his life. More than most of us, perhaps. But at 2:15 AM on New Year’s Day he was shot in the back with another officer’s knee on the back of his neck. Roughly seven hours later he died from the bullet wound. Oscar Grant was a mess. He was also a life, and one with potential. He did not deserve what happened to him at that train stop, but then “deserve’s” got nothing to do with it, does it?
It’s a story told way too often in our country. Grant, Trayvon Martin, Emmit Till. The story of young black men just trying to make their way home and ending up in the ground. Hell, it goes back a long way too. Well before Crispus Attucks took that first bullet at the Boston Massacre in 1770, black men have been paying for the foolishness of white people for a long time. They have been paying with their living conditions, their opportunity in life, and sometimes with their entire lives.
So when I like to think of myself as that “other” part of White America, the one that isn’t so bad. I have to remember a couple of things. That I can go to a 7-11 wearing a hoodie and not be suspected of thuggery or malfeasance. That I can get off at a train stop and not be an assumed part of a fracas that I may or may not have been a party to. I can pretty much go wherever I want and thanks to an accident of birth, the pigment of my skin, I will never know what it feels like to be Oscar Grant.
I am the whole of White America, and I am ashamed. But I am trying. Fortunately for me, my odds are better than Oscar Grant’s.
This was originally published on TheBigSlice.org