Fruitvale Station opened last month. It’s a film about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a police officer at a BART train station in Oakland. When I saw it, I was surprised by just how many of us in the theater were viscerally shaken and visibly upset by the power of a relatively simple personal narrative. I couldn’t help but wonder, though: Will our emotion lead us to action?
Not that I didn’t already know the story. Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was on his way home from the New Year Eve’s fireworks in San Francisco with his girlfriend when he was shot in the back on a subway platform while face-down, handcuffed, with a knee on his spine. I already knew that the leading cause of death for black men in the United States is gun violence. I expected to have strong feelings about the film, but its expert crafting — by a first-time filmmaker who strongly identified with Grant — carried me deep into the personal tragedies and social struggles at the intersection of race and violence in 21st-century America.
Grant’s story speaks to the heart of a society ravaged by violence and racism, anchored in small, clear details: his love for his mother, his teasing of his daughter, his inability to control his temper at times. It’s easy to see some part of yourself reflected in Grant; it’s harder to answer the questions this retelling brings up about the value of a life and, more specifically, of a black man’s life in the United States today. It is a film that flows from anecdote to anecdote with a light touch even as it conveys Grant’s painful story.
It seems a cold perversity that the film opened across the United States on the weekend that the George Zimmerman verdict was announced. Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin was both widely touted as a victory for the justice system and denounced — in many cases, by protesters taking to the streets — as a failure of racial progress. (Unlike George Zimmerman, the policeman who shot and killed Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, thanks in large part to the testimony of multiple cellphone recordings and witnesses.)
We know that cultural work and art can be a powerful channel for anger, aspirations and fears that can in turn lead to social transformation. But what will it take for Fruitvale to have a significant impact — not only on individual moviegoers but also on the national conversation about race in 2013?
Considering another, similar film might provide some context for this question. Last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, but the week also marked the 58th anniversary of the death of another young black man, Emmet Till. Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was murdered in 1955 for overstepping the bounds of racism in Mississippi by whistling at a white woman. The white murderers got off, and when Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket at the funeral, the world was shocked at the evil shown through his mutilated face. In 2005, Keith Beauchamp released The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, a film that weaves together first-person interviews, archival footage and other materials in a tight, yet rote, documentary style. Beauchamp recalls that he was inspired to create the film by seeing a photo of the murdered Till. Time didn’t lessen the image’s power.
The national media coverage of the Till trial made it a major milestone in the civil rights struggle; Beauchamp’s film, in turn, is credited with moving the Department of Justice to reopen the case in 2004. Beauchamp has continued to shed light on unsolved civil rights murder cases, and he has found a public platform for some of this work on Investigation Discovery’s The Inustice Files: At the End of a Rope.
The impact of Fruitvale remains to be seen. The film’s web page has a place to “commit and be part of the movement,” but there is no further information about what that means other than posting and tweeting to promote the film itself. Fruitvale director Ryan Coogler has said, “I thought that if I could bring the story to life through art, and give audiences the chance to spend time with a character like Oscar, it could maybe lower the chances of an incident like this happening again.”
I’m not sure this is enough. It leaves me wondering what outlet can be provided for the man in the row in front of me who sobbed most of the way through the second half of Fruitvale, or the teenagers swearing on the way out, or the elder women who were simply shaking. The organizer in me wants a website and phone number and template action handout waiting at the door, or at least on the website — a concrete next step toward a more compassionate world.
Currently, there are several groups specifically thinking about creative community engagement strategies and campaigns for films relevant to justice and social change. Working Films boldly dedicates itself to “linking non-fiction film to cutting edge activism.” Active Voice has similarly focused on connecting the power of film, television and multimedia together in meaningful ways that can spark social change. The Arts and Democracy Project has been instrumental in building links between artists, organizers and policymakers. These groups are helping to frame and structure the best practices for collaboration. Involving activists and organizers early on in the production process facilitates effective use of the art; preparing educational modules, planning actions and even simply co-sponsoring screenings with activist organizations are simple ways of harnessing the latent power in such productions.
We might also look to another recent documentary, The Act of Killing. In over-the-top style, it features reenacted, mass atrocities committed mostly in the mid-1960s by the Indonesian government against its own people. Knowing that the government would crush distribution of the film in movie houses, its supporters strategically turned to local human rights and other community-based groups to show it across the country. For the first time since the overthrow of Sukarno, Indonesians are now able to take a hard look at the regime that perpetuated extreme violence against its own people while fabricating a story about repressing communism. Through this act of guerrilla distribution, the film is upending the official state-sanctioned history, forcing even state-affiliated media to acknowledge the truth in these stories.
As compelling, insightful and provocative as a great film can be, it would be a waste not to harness Fruitvale to move masses of people to action, to define more clearly what committing to the movement might mean. Where are the teaching materials, the outreach info or at least the phone number of an organization working on un-learning racism, stopping gun violence or organizing communities? Art can have an impact of life and society, to be sure, but doing so requires more than just the artwork.
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