Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fruitvale Station [2013]

MPAA (PG-13) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  PopMatters (8/10)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
PopMatters (C. Fuchs) review (S. Boone) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Fruitvale Station [2013] (written and directed by Ryan Coogler) is a film that will almost certainly make you cry.  Winner of both the audience and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, it will almost certainly be a contender for any number of Academy Awards this year.

The film tells the story of the last day of the life of Oscar Grant (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan) a thoroughly average (and certainly not perfect) 22-year-old African-American man living in Oakland, CA with his girlfriend Sophina (played in the film by Melonie Diaz) and 4 year old daughter Tatiana (played in the film by Ariana Neal) and with a family -- mother (played stunningly in the film by Octavia Spencer) and a grandma (played in the film by Marjorie Shears) -- who loved him.  Oscar Grant was shot in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009 at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, CA by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle after an incident that occurred on one of the trains.  Grant died a few hours later at a local hospital.   The film ends with his funeral making only short reference to the trial/sentencing and (Bay Area) protests that followed Grant's death before, during and after the trial.

At the subsequent trial, the defense attorney for Mehserle, argued that he had shot Oscar Grant by accident, that he had instead sought to taze him, but in the heat of the moment mistakenly pulled out his revolver instead and shot him.  The incident was captured on video by numerous passengers of the stopped train using their cell phones after BART police (all apparently white/Hispanic) pulled several young men (all darker-skinned Hispanics / African Americans) from the train, and proceeded then to arrest them.  The confusion that the cell phone videos captured makes Mehserle's explanation plausible, but ...

... and in that "but" is, of course, the horror / tragedy.  In the criminal case of the shooting death of Oscar Grant, Johannes Meserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 2 years in prison.  Perhaps most upsetiting in the whole case was that Meserle's prison time was then reduced not merely by "time already served" in jail prior and during the trial but somewhat inexplicably by double the time already served.  As a result, Meserle served 292 days (less than one year) in jail for an incident that left Grant dead.  In subsequent Civil Action, the girlfriend of Oscar Grant settled with the BART Police Dept. on behalf of her/Oscar's daughter for $1.5 million. Grant's daughter will receive a series of payouts until her 30th birthday.

In isolation, Oscar Grant's story itself would be a horror.  Even after conceding the possibility and/or even the probability that the BART PD officer didn't mean to shoot Grant, Grant was nonetheless left dead as a result.

This, however, has not been the only time in which a young African American was left dead as a result of plausibly unintentional or even plausibly justified ("in the heat of the moment") deadly action on the part of a gun wielding non-African American, hence making the film all the more poignant / timely:

Oscar Grant's case bears more-or-less obvious resonances with the recent case of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida at the hands of a gun-wielding "neighborhood watchman" George Zimmerman (the defense argued that Zimmerman was plausibly acting in self-defense when he shot 17-year old Trayvon).  And since I lived in L.A. at the time, I remember the 1992 case of the shooting death 9-year old Latasha Harlins at the hands of a middle-aged Korean shop-owner Soon Ja Du who pointed a modified gun (making it easier to fire) at the 9-year-old believing her to be shoplifting when it (plausibly accidently) discharged resulting in the 9 year old's death.  (Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, however at sentencing was given only 5 years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.  The laughably light sentence (no jail time at all despite a voluntary manslaughter conviction) exacerbated racial tensions in Los Angeles to a breaking point.  So when later in 1992 at the end of the Rodney King Trial, a jury composed of 11 whites and 1 latino (no blacks) acquitted three of four LAPD officers (and could not come to a verdict on the fourth) accused of beating African American Rodney King despite the presence of a videotape showing them doing so, the city of Los Angeles exploded in rioting.

Our justice system is built on giving the accused the benefit of the doubt.  Yet one ought to be able to understand the horror and anger of the African American community which sees the more or less obvious pattern and asks: "Why does 'the benefit of the doubt' leave YOUNG AFRICAN AMERICANS DEAD?  WHERE WAS THE 'BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT' FOR THEM?"  Then there's the almost laughable question: Where's the "benefit of the doubt" for young African American men accused of crimes? 

Could a young African American male get-off completely (as Zimmerman did) or get convicted of a much smaller crime (as the BART PD Officer Mehserle did) by pleading (1) "I was only acting in self-defense" (as Zimmerman pleaded in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin) or (2) "I didn't mean to shoot him" (as BART PD Officer Mehserle pleaded in the shooting death of Oscar Grant)?  And could one imagine any African American (or really ANYONE) of any age getting off with NO JAIL TIME even after a VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER CONVICTION in the case of the DEATH OF A NINE YEAR OLD (as the Korean shop-owner Soon Ja Du was able to get-off with in the shooting death of 9-year old Latasha Harlins).

This then is the question and horror that Ryan Coogler's film poses: Do African Americans (especially young African American males) matter in this country?

A number of days after the conclusion of the trial of George Zimmerman, U.S. President Barack Obama, our nation's first black President, made a remarkable extended statement on the matter of race and the value of young African American men, noting above all that young African American boys need to believe that their country cares for them.

And a similarly remarkable CNN AC360 Town Hall Special "Race and Justice in America II" (aired July 23, 2013) featured among other things the personal testimony of a 30-something African American writer for CNN talking of her concerns for her 13 year old son and the kinds of heart-breaking "we want you to live" conversations that African American parents have had to have with their children over the generations.

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