Oscar Grant and I were on the same train the night he was shot.
We weren’t in the same car and we didn’t interact, but we were on the same train. And watching Fruitvale Station, I was struck with how similarly we spent that final day of December in 2009.
Ryan Coogler’s new film is a fictional account of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. So of course I can’t truly compare my experience to Grant’s (though the heavily researched movie is based on fact). But I was on that train. And the movie was filmed mostly in my neighborhood. So there was an eerie resonance for me.
The Oakland I grew up in was very different than the city Oscar Grant knew, naturally. I’ve never felt unsafe around the police. Maybe that’s because my community doesn’t have a history of police brutality. I’ve never been afraid to wear a hoodie.
So why should I write about Oscar Grant’s death? Grant’s death and the death of Trayvon Martin have sparked widespread debate about institutional racism. What do I have to contribute to that discussion? I used to think that because I was there when Grant was killed, I had some sort of ownership over the event. I saw it, so I must have a perspective about it. His death was part of my personal narrative. I mean, I was there.
But the truth of the matter is, I don’t know the first thing about Oscar Grant. His story is not my story. It is not mine to tell. No matter how sympathetic I feel about Grant’s shooting, no matter how much that experience inspires me to work towards equality, I can’t really understand what it means to be a young black man in America. Unlike Ryan Coogler.
In tragedies like this, the victims frequently become symbols. Both Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin are examples of this metamorphosis. The danger associated with this kind of objectification in the media, is that victim’s stories are appropriated and presented either as motives for their killers to be absolved of guilt or as proof that a particular piece of legislation like Stand Your Ground doesn’t work. It’s never about these young men or who they were. The exposure strips them of their humanity.
This is not the case with Ryan Coogler’s film. Coogler presents Grant as a flawed, three dimensional human. Not a symbol. As Grant, a scintillating Michael B. Jordan oscillates between charm and violence. In one moment he’s advising a stranger in the supermarket on the best recipe for fried fish and, in the next, he’s aggressively intimidating a former employer who won’t give him his job back.
The fact that Coogler avoids politicizing Grant allows us to focus on who he was as a person. Jordan’s Grant is idealistic but lazy. In the first scene he makes an informal marriage proposal to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and shortly thereafter empties his stash of drugs into the waters of the bay. However, he’s unemployed and has no job prospects. Though he wants a family and wants to provide for that family, Coogler portrays Grant as being ill equipped to even understand what it will take of him to achieve this goal.
Though Coogler’s film is certainly about Oscar Grant, it’s also a movie about the consequences of living your life in a society created by a people who are not your own. It’s a movie about living on the fringe.
Considering my proximity, I was excited to see Fruitvale Station. Yet, as I watched Grant’s last twenty four hours unfold on the screen, I realized that I knew so little about what his experience was actually like. Even though our lives peripherally overlapped, the experience of his life wasn’t a part of my narrative at all.
Tragedies like this arouse empathy and can inspire change. Yet, as a white kid, it’s dangerous for me to assume that I understand the perspective of a marginalized community. Making a tragedy like this about me displaces the experience of the people who were truly hurt.
Just because I was there doesn’t mean I was a part of it. And just because I occupied the same space doesn’t mean I lived in the same city.