Sunday, December 7, 2014
I finally saw Fruitvale Station, a documentary about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in Oakland early on New Year’s Day, 2009.
The film came out around the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin and I felt I just could not take it. Since then we’ve had the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley.
I don’t think I would have watched Fruitvale Station if my son, who doesn’t have a Netflix subscription, hadn’t asked me to order it for him. There it was lying on the dining room table waiting for him to pick it up, so I decided to give it a try.
The film’s director, Ryan Coogler told the New York Times: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something." Coogler succeeded. If we ever get beyond racial hatred and fears, we will owe a great deal to artists who help us get outside of ourselves and see the world from another’s perspective.
Coogler worked closely with Grant’s family to create an accurate portrait of Oscar's life, and with the exception of a little poetic license here and there, apparently did so. Grant was struggling to get his life back on track; the tragedy of his death and its impact of his mother, girlfriend, and young daughter is powerfully conveyed.
I think in some ways I was blocking my emotional response to the killings and Fruitvale Station broke through my defenses. If I were still teaching, this is a film I would definitely use in the classroom. For over three decades, I was always looking at books, articles, and films with an eye to their classroom potential. Old habits die hard. Although I have no intention of returning to teaching, I find myself still thinking about how a book or film would work in the classroom.
Just as we owe a great deal to artists like Coogler in helping us understand the costs of racism, we also owe a great deal to what we call the millennial generation, the most diverse generation in American history and more liberal on racial and social issues than previous generations. Barack Obama would not be president without them. Now they are in the forefront of the demonstrations against the recent killings.
Police involvement in racially motivated killing is nothing new in American history. But the killings have never before generated such broad-based outrage. Many Americans—-particularly young Americans--are in agreement with President Obama; "When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem..It's incumbent on all of us as Americans ...that we recognize that this is an American problem and not just a black problem. It is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law."
If I were to use Fruitvale Station in the classroom, I would pair it with footage of the recent multi-racial demonstrations and with a film clip of President Obama’s response. Just can’t get out of the habit of making lesson plans!