Sunday we took a group of high school boys to see the movie Fruitvale Station. The movie is based on a true story, depicting the last 24-hours of the life of a 22 year old African-American man named Oscar Grant.
The climax of the movie comes as Oscar and his friends are dragged off a commuter train after a skirmish with someone he served time with at San Quentin. Tensions rise and Oscar is shot & killed by one of the intervening police officers. The offending officer reported that he thought he was reaching for his taser-- not his gun. The officer was originally charged with first degree murder. He was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter-- and served 11 months in jail. As you might imagine many were left outraged that he served so little time.
You might be tempted to write Oscar off as a lost cause-- if so you'd be wrong!!! As his character evolves we see him make the conscious decision to break with the tough circumstances and troubling aspects of his life. Along the way we see him caring deeply and taking responsibility for the well-being of family, friend, and stranger. Not surprisingly though, as he attempts to embark on "the right path"
he finds himself frustrated and demoralized, going so far to say: "I'm trying to start out fresh, but things don't seem to be working out."
In one of the movie's most subtle but telling moments we find Oscar in a conversation with the husband of a pregnant wife. The man tells Oscar about how he used to commit fraud by "running credit cards" that didn't belong to him. He goes on to say that he eventually got out of that business, purchased his wife a wedding ring (replacing the one he had previously stolen), and started his own business. At the end of the conversation he slips Oscar a business card, telling him to call if there's anything he can ever do for him. The gentleman and his pregnant wife walk off into the rest of their lives. Oscar walks off with his friends, only hours away from being shot dead by a police officer.
The encounter between these two men is laden with racialized significance (you had to know it was coming-- right?). Both men have checkered pasts; both have engaged in illegal activities; and both at some point made a decision to "straighten up and fly right." For Oscar, "things aren't working out;" for the other gentleman, everything seems to be working out just fine.
The difference between the two is that Oscar is young and black-- the other man is older and white. I think you get the point-- two men, both exposed early in their lives to bad decisions and a life of crime, end up on two different trajectories-- one to expansive opportunities and a more prosperous future, the other to a more limited and narrow pathway, the road often blocked, and in a grave before the age of 23.
The great W.E.B. Dubois speaks eloquently to the challenge that Oscar encounters here. Quoting from one of my favorite books-- the Souls of Black Folks Dubois says:
"And their weak wings beat against their barriers,--barriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerous moments, against everything that opposed even a whim."Dubois, Souls of Black Folks, Chapter-- "Of the Meaning of Progress"
The point here is that too many black (and brown) boys, despite their best efforts to "do the right thing" encounter circumstances and structures that threaten to undermine their potential. As Dubois suggests, they seek to soar, but they "beat their wings" against the walls of bias, fear, stereotypes, suspicion, and a world that refuses in many cases to nurture their potential or give them the benefit of the doubt.
In the conversation both before and after the movie, these young princes had a lot to say about the structural barriers that are working against them-- in this case attitudes. Listen in on some of their comments:
"I am terrified."-- Interpretation--Who am I supposed to trust? The people who are supposed to protect me are the ones attacking me. I don't feel safe.
"You can never just be yourself."-- Interpretation-- The world doesn't like who you really are. You have to be pretend to be someone or something else to make them comfortable with you. ("Dubois, again in the Souls of Black Folks called this phenomenon "double consciousness").
"Trayvon got shot and he didn't even have dreads."-- Interpretation-- the world sees me as a menace to society. Me or my friends could be next.Here we are only talking about the "barrier" of attitude that many folks have about young black men-- not to mention other barriers such as internalizing those negative attitudes and stereotypes, living in tough neighborhoods, being profiled, low-income, a prison industrial complex that is unforgiving and that profits from their slightest misstep, prevailing academic achievement gaps, and life opportunity gaps.
Here's my takeaway-- these young men are becoming as cynical and suspicious about the world around them as much as the world around them is cynical and suspicious about them. What are we gonna do about that?
For now, thank God for pizza! A moment of respite from a world that threatens them-- a world that threatens all of us. More to come for sure.