Fruitvale Station: Subversive Humanity
Saturday was date night, and Katrina and I went to the local over-the-top-luxurious movie theater, where you sit in recliners and swaddle yourself in soft blankets and order food and drink from the full menu to be brought to you in your seats.1
Now, if I am presented with an opportunity for someone to bring me Chimay whilst I recline and watch a movie, I view it as morally wrong to miss it. Am I to be ungracious? No.
The luxury and decent food and excellent beer didn't really feel right this time, though. They felt deeply incongruous and increasingly uncomfortable. That's because we were at the theater to see Fruitvale Station, a harrowing but stunningly acted story of the last twenty-four hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer as he lay prone and unarmed on the ground of the train station of that name. That officer — Johannes Mehserle — was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I previously wrote about the law governing the charges against him and how they applied to his defense that he accidentally grabbed his pistol rather than his taser.
The movie starts with actual footage of the shooting, then flashes back to the last day of Grant's life, plagued with trouble but centered on his girlfriend and daughter. It's powerful, and moving, it's amazingly well-acted, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, with the reservation that it is like a kick in the gut. The film's treatment of the fatal moment allows varying interpretations, which might arise from your preconceived notions based on media coverage or political or social views: did Mehserle lose control and execute an unarmed man in a moment of rage? Did he make a terrible, reckless error reflecting bad judgment and bad training in a moment of chaos? The movie has things to say about how police act towards young men like Grant, but it doesn't force the ultimate conclusion.
The movie has been deservedly well-reviewed. One review caught my eye, because it says things that, as a criminal defense attorney, I hear a lot. At Variety, Geoff Berkshire says:
Yet even if every word of Coogler’s account of the last day in Grant’s life held up under close scrutiny, the film would still ring false in its relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.
. . . .
Consequently, “Fruitvale” piles on examples of Grant as a loving boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), son to Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), with only fleeting glimpses of his foibles. Sophina remains angry about a recent affair Oscar had (though she has to forgive him, because he’s so darn sweet). He also spent time in prison (for reasons never made clear), has a temper that occasionally flares up and was fired from his grocery store job for missing work. Yet there’s never any question that by the time we meet him, all of this dubious stuff is firmly in Oscar’s past, and he’s dedicated himself to pursuing a better life.
Berkshire seems to feel that filmmaker Ryan Coogler is cheating by depicting Oscar Grant as a loving father and fond if imperfect boyfriend and son, without portraying him sufficiently as — to be blunt — a criminal.
Geoff Berkshire didn't see the same movie I saw. I saw a movie in which Michael B. Jordan convincingly portrays a young man who has recently cheated on his loving and patient girlfriend and is somewhat defiant about it, a young man who knows his choices threaten to make his daughter miserable, a young man who still flirts with drugs, a young man who can be cruel to his devoted mother, a young man who has a hot temper and poor self-control and a capacity for violence. The film shows a young man who went to prison and was immersed in its brutal culture.
But the movie shows other aspects of Oscar Grant, too, and that may be what is upsetting Berkshire. The film shows Oscar Grant is all those things, but still others at the same time. The film shows that Grant genuinely loves his girlfriend even though he wrongs her. The film shows he is devoted to his daughter even as he's made choices that separates them. The film shows he loves his mother and regrets the pain he's caused her. The film shows that he can be kind to strangers and form connections with people.
We're used to stories that depict criminals as protagonists, like The Godfather or The Wire or Boardwalk Empire. The culture accepts — with occasional grumbling — fictional characters being more than one thing at once, made of good and bad parts. But when it comes to a real human being like Oscar Grant, our culture tends to be scornful of complexity and nuance. Berkshire's review suggests that Oscar Grant is a criminal, and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise. (It's entirely possible that somewhere someone is writing angrily that Oscar Grant is a victim and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise.) But Oscar Grant, like all of us, was more than one thing. Oscar Grant, a real live human being, could make terrible decisions that threatened his relationship with his daughter and still love her fiercely. Oscar Grant could love his mother and break her heart. Oscar Grant could commit crimes but be kind to strangers. If we're honest about human beings, we can depict one side without diminishing the other side.
Society has a stake in depicting people like Oscar Grant — people who have gone to prison, people who have committed crimes — as all one thing. Society has a reason to get anxious, as Berkshire seems to, when the Oscar Grants of the world are depicted as people like us with good and bad parts, people to whom we can relate. Society runs on treating many people as less than human. Society depends on the social compact not falling apart when a young man is shot to death as he lays prone and unarmed on the pavement. Society depends on us accepting the fact that we jail people at a greater rate than anyone on the planet. Society depends on us accepting, as we are more and more enthusiastic about jailing people, that we are less and less interested in paying for adequate legal representation or adequate jail conditions. Society depends on us shrugging at brutality. Society relies on us not recognizing the essential humanity of the targets of the state's power. Depicting people who commit crimes as one-dimensional criminals supports that social compact; depicting them as people — people more like us than unlike us — threatens it.2
Society can't function as presently constituted if we recognize the Oscar Grants of the world (or for that matter the Johannes Mehserles) as a human beings, and act accordingly. Fruitvale Station is not subversive because it suggests Oscar Grant's death was a grave injustice; it's subversive because it suggests his life had value in the first place.
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