While many of us, across the nation and around the world are protesting the travesty of justice in the death of Trayvon Martin, which eerily echoes the trial and subsequent release of Mehserle after doing only a year of incarceration (though at least with Mehserle there was a conviction of sorts), it is somehow fitting that Oscar Grant's life and death is now opening as a film, Fruitvale Station, which will shine a light on another young black man cut down.
Two weeks ago, I wrote, "Before Trayvon Martin there was Oscar Grant." It is clear to many of us that there are parallels in the two stories.
This is also clear to the filmmaker.
Ryan Coogler, the director of “Fruitvale Station,” answered emotional questions from the audience at Lincoln Center’s Summer Talks series Thursday. Coogler, whose buzzed-about film is based on the real-life story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot on an Oakland subway platform by a white cop, commented on the Trayvon Martin case, telling attendees, “It affects you and depresses you and saddens you, because I think you know Trayvon had love in his life and potential.” He continued, “There are millions of Americans that don’t see Trayvon’s potential. They look at him and see him as a thug who got what he deserved. You know he was a 17-year-old boy that couldn’t even vote yet, had never been arrested, never had a criminal record. My question is, why do people look at him and see that?” Coogler concluded, “We look at him and see something else. We look at him and see us.” He said he hopes people will leave the movie asking the question, “What is the value of human life?”I had the pleasure of doing a short interview with him last week.
There's not a whole lot you can garner from a half-hour phone conversation. Before the interview, I had already seen the film and read and seen numerous excellent in-depth interviews with Coogler. I recommend you read a recent one with Mychal Denzel Smith.
I didn't really want to ask about filmmaking. I just wanted to get a sense of Ryan Coogler, a 27-year-old young black man from Oakland.
After a few minutes of introductory icebreaking, I asked him, "What are your fears?"
He replied softly, "Getting shot or getting incarcerated ... just looking how I look—not just by the police, but also by neighborhood gun violence … that fear extends to my loved ones ... My family is huge."
I asked, "Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"I have two brothers, they're 22 and 20."
He went on to talk, with a smile in his voice, about his brothers. One—Keenan—has a role in the film and the other wrote some of the music.
After the interview was over, and I sat thinking about writing this, I kept hearing him voicing his fear.
How many of you reading here today, if asked about what your greatest fear is, would answer the same way, with no hesitation?
"Fear of being shot, or incarcerated. Just looking how I look."
This is being re-enforced daily in black homes and other households of people of color across the U.S.
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Just to give you a sense of why Ryan Coogler could make that statement, which so many black men can relate to, or black women can worry about as mothers, and aunts, and cousins, and wives and girlfriends, here's a short video interview with him.
This is how he looks.
He's a regular, young black man. So is Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar Grant.
So was Trayvon Martin. So was Oscar Grant.
In the last few days since the acquittal of George Zimmerman there have been many articles written about conversations that get held in our families, "the talk" we learn to give our sons—most recently we heard from Attorney General Eric Holder.
Here's part of what he had to say at the NAACP Convention:
Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I’m sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.Oscar Grant's mom told him to take the train. It would be safer on New Years Eve.
Since those days, our country has indeed changed for the better. The fact that I stand before you as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, serving in the Administration of our first African American President, proves that. Yet, for all the progress we’ve seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do – and much further to go. The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man – when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.
Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15 year old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.
Trayvon Martin went to the store. Neither Trayvon nor Oscar made it home again.
I was not surprised by Ryan Coogler's statement of what in our community we know as fact, not groundless fear.
Fruitvale Station is a film that illustrates a day in the lives of many of us. The optimism of New Years Eve, a family birthday celebration, the frustration of losing a job, the pressures to pay bills, the joy of playing with your child, your child's fears hearing gunshots nearby, the pain of trying to patch your life and relationship together after incarceration.
Talented, with a lifetime ahead of him making films that if they are anything like this one, Coogler will continue to provide audiences with, as he said, "a window into the real lives of our community." If he doesn't get shot. By someone.
This film is not some Hollywood version of "us." It is us.
It is very rare for a black filmmaker to get to make an independent feature film with this type of broad distribution and major acclaim. Too often, in Hollywood, blacks play only supporting roles, and the vision of our world is portrayed via outsider eyes.
I haven't been so affected by a black independent feature film since Charle's Burnett's Killer of Sheep, and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, neither of which garnered even a tenth of the attention that Fruitvale Station is getting.
I commented that too often our young brothers are simply written off as as absentee dads. Coogler said, "I got a chance to spend a lot of time with Oscar's friends. Oscar's friends have all kids. And there were lots of pictures. You couldn’t find a picture of him by himself—most were with Tati ... he was inseparable from Tati ... this film is about relationships."
Most of the rest of the conversation was about specific scenes in the film, which resonated with me, but I won't talk about them here cause they'd be spoilers.
I mentioned that I had read he was a big fan of Tupac's music, and he laughed when I told him that I had only met Tupac in his mama's belly, explaining that Tupac's mom Afeni Shakur and I were in the Panthers together. Coogler said his uncle had also been a Panther ... Oakland was the home of the BPP, but that was "before his time," though everyone knew about Bobby Seale and Huey.
It seemed that before the conversation had really gotten started, the interview was over. We were interrupted by someone from the studio, to say our half hour was up.
I did manage to ask him what he was thinking about doing next.
He was quiet for a moment, and then shared: "A film about a high school football player." Something Ryan Coogler knows well too, since he played high school football and ended up with a football scholarship, to Saint Mary's College where he played wide receiver.
The photos of young Trayvon in his football uniform flashed in my mind.
The day after Fruitvale Station opened in New York, I was attending a gathering over in New Jersey, and two people, both Latinos, who I didn't know well, started to talk about having gone to see it. The husband said he had heard a little bit about Oscar Grant's case awhile back on WBAI-FM, a local public radio station. The wife said she knew nothing about it. They both said they were shaken by the film, and that most of the audience left in tears. The wife remarked, "I hope they get to show this in schools."
If you only get to go to one movie this year, make your first and last stop Fruitvale Station.
It opened July 19th in select theaters and will go nationwide on July 26th.