I saw the film Fruitvale Station on February 19th in Coffman Memorial Union for an event that was hosted by the Black Student Union. After the event, a panel that was moderated by Professor Zenzele Isoke was held to talk about the film and police brutality in the United States with three prominent activists and community members.
The film was made in 2013 by Ryan Coogler and follows a day in the life of Oscar Grant. Grant was murdered by a police officer on a Fruitvale Station BART stop on New Years Day in 2009. The shooting was one of the first that was captured by cell phone video footage and garnered much outrage across the city and nation. As most people probably know, police brutality is something that was a systemic problem long before Grant’s death and continues to be a tremendous problem, despite cell phone footage that captures the murders. The film opens with the actual cell phone footage of Grant’s shooting that shows him in hand cuffs on the ground before he is shot in the back. It was a powerful intro to the film to remind viewers of the gravity of the story they were about to watch and of the fact that it is a story based in reality. What followed the real footage was a story about Grant’s day, based on true events and Coogler’s research. We learned in the panel discussion that the director took a few creative liberties in telling the story but much of the day in Grant’s life was based on stories from the news and Grant’s family.
I thought that the film was incredibly powerful politically and cinematically and will continue to be important in this country, a country where a black man is killed every 28 hours by a police officer, vigilante or security staff person. I believe the critiques on creating and consuming a spectacle of black death while remaining inactive in the face of institutionalize white supremacy and on the politics of creating the perfect victim for the gaze of white people are also important.
Sociocultural context from my academic experience in the AFRO department here at the U as well as my time volunteering with Communities United Against Police Brutality helped me find meaning in the film. Having knowledge of the intersectionality of oppression and various political systems helped me understand how class, gender and race colluded to structure Grant’s lived experiences as a lower class black man. My privileges and identities prevented me from personally being able to understand what it would be like to live in a society that treats my body as inherently threatening and problematic. I have not experienced oppression and the struggles that accompany it, as the micro-aggressions present throughout Grant’s day before his death showed, but having an intellectual framework for the sociocultural context provided a better framework for comprehending the film.
Oscar Grant was a partner and a daughter, was struggling to find work, and had a large family around him that loved him. Much of the film showed his humanity and helped the viewers connect on a personal level to a person that has since become a statistic and a story.
Spectatorship and the gaze were analyzed in depth in the panel discussion after the film. Many in the room and on the panel debated whom the film was intended for. The audience did engage in the political act that hooks described as “interrogating the gaze” of the dominant viewer, which some believed would be a prominently white audience (hooks 2). Some argued that the scenes that tried to humanize Grant were problematic because it played into the respectability politics that foster a belief that black life only matters when we have a perfect victim. This is a problem.
The scene at the grocery store when Grant helped out a while woman and the scence when Grant bonded with a white man in San Francisco could be seen as gestures to a white audience that Grant was indeed a valuable human, despite his past time in jail, drug use, and blackness. In the U.S., the dominant narratives that saturate the media after the police kill a black person focuses on the criminal past of the victim and all of the things that somehow work to make their death less of a crime. It seems that Coogler could have been trying to appeal to the white imagination by showing that somebody that smokes pot, used to be in jail and is black could also be a kind father, partner and son. While this could maybe be an effective strategy, it is problematic to even play into the idea that one needs to explain a person of color’s humanity in order for them to be human whose death is a tragedy and/or crime. Zenzele Isoke argued that those moves might not have been the director trying to create a respectable black character but actually showing the reality of unexpected acts of kindness and solidarity that is a part of Oakland culture and Grant’s actual life.
I read an article on the role of video, white America’s sentiments and the killing of black people by the police called “Black Death has become a cultural spectacle” if anybody is interested: http://www.salon.com/2015/04/08/black_death_has_become_a_cultural_spectacle_why_the_walter_scott_tragedy_wont_change_white_americas_mind/. It relates to conversations we have had in class with spectacle and voyeurism, as well as to the topic of film and police brutality present throughout Fruitvale Station. The author of the article brings up how we can watch the deaths on loop but not be moved to action, which would align with Mulvey’s definition of scopophilia as a “controlling” and objectifying gaze (3). In the panel, Anthony Newby, the director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said that while film is creating national conversations on police brutality, it’s not threatening institutionalized white supremacy and state sanctioned violence. Given that it is not leading to convictions, as we saw in the case of Eric Garner, or threatening the system as it operates according to Newby, is the watching of the filmed killings an act of voyeurism and/or scopophilia as theorized by Mulvey?
The audience was filled mostly with students, members of the Black Student Union and a few community members. There was a bit of audience interaction with the film, mostly in vocalized pain while watching the more grueling parts of it. Due to the panel after the fact, there was far more communication between moviegoers than at more traditional movie showings. There was a long silence after the film ended and even the panelists took a bit of time to find their words. I cried during two parts of the film, but in a much quieter and briefer way than I would have had I been watching it in my home, probably because I’ve been socialized to see crying as a weakness and something to be ashamed of. When the lights came up, though, it was clear that a lot of people had also been crying.
The film was shown in Coffman’s theatre, which is quite nice and, as we all know, is located on campus at the U. The film was free, which was refreshing and made me feel like I was actually participating in an accessible community event. While the confines of academia may have prevented it from truly being accessible to all communities, it was much closer to a community event than most for-profit movie showings are.
My partner and I look the LRT home after the showing, which was grueling as there were two fairly aggressive cops checking for tickets on the train that looked a lot like the BART. For two privileged people that can choose to go through their days without thinking about police brutality and the threats facing black folks in America, that experience juxtaposed with the film and following conversation was significant.