Trayvon Martin

Posted: July 28, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond the world of jobs and careers.]

A Movie You Should See

Over the past few months, America has again wrestled with questions of race and justice as it debated the case of George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The movie Fruitvale Station explores a similar situation.  22 year old Oscar Grant was killed by transit police in Oakland on January 1, 2009.  Several people on the train captured the killing with cell phone cameras.  Clearly, whatever Grant’s actions, he did not deserve to die.

Some might argue that Fruitvale Station gives too kind a portrait of Grant who spent time in jail and dealt drugs.  I look at it differently.  While the movies shows him doing those things, it also depicts him as a father, son, lover, and friend, a complex human being, not a cartoon cutout.  In one scene, he helps a stranger in a store who doesn’t know what kind of fish to buy for a fish fry.

This incident might seem trivial, but it is very significant, especially given some of the fall out from the Zimmerman trial.  Some conservatives have dredged up the myth of the dysfunctional black family as a way to buttress arguments in favor of Zimmerman’s “innocence.”  In the film, Oscar calls his grandmother who tells the young woman how to make a fish fry.  Later Oscar’s grandmother makes gumbo as part of a birthday celebration for her daughter, Oscar’s mother.  Four generations share the food as part of a tradition and as an expression of love.  There is nothing dysfunctional about this family.

Similarly Oscar and his girlfriend are portrayed as loving parents who are struggling members of the working class.  Oscar has lost his job because he was late for work too often.  His girlfriend works in the service industry.  At one point, Oscar looks at a calendar and sees the words in red “Rent Due.”  He arranges to sell pot, but then, remember his time in prison, dumps his bag in the ocean.  He’s trying to change his life.

After Oscar gets in a fight on a train, transit police pull him and his friends onto a station platform.  During a tense altercation with several officers, Oscar is shot by a young officer who overreacted.  Several passengers filmed the incident as the police took Oscar’s friends away in handcuffs.

Again, we see family in hospital as surgeons try to save Oscar’s life.  His mother, played by Octavia Spencer, leads prayers and pushes his friends to look beyond their anger.  We see in this scene how much Oscar was loved, how his life had value that goes beyond a college degree or rap sheet.  As almost everyone attending this movie will know before buying a ticket, Oscar dies.  The film ends with scenes from a protest in 2013 that show Oscar’s daughter Tatiana outside Fruitvale Station.  We are left with her loss and pain.

The man Oscar fought on the train was a white ex-con he had also battled in prison.  When the transit cops entered the train, they only took off Oscar and his friends.  Most of the officers, including the one who shot Oscar, were white.  Justice seems more selective than blind.  Similarly, in the Zimmerman case, much was made of how Trayvon Martin dressed, the words his friend used on the stand, and other criminal actions in the area that were attributed to African Americans.  The details of the case are under dispute.  However, this is certain.  Trayvon Martin died at the age of 17, five years younger than Oscar Grant.  Neither young man deserved to die, whatever reason the justice system gave for excusing the men who killed them. (Zimmerman, of course, was found not guilty.  The officer who shot Grant only served 11 months on a two year sentence.)

I strongly recommend Fruitvale Station as a beautifully told tragic story.  We are introduced to a young man and get to see the world through his mind and feel through his heart for 90 minutes. Fruitvale Station is great art because it challenges us to change not just how we think, but also how we feel.  If this country ever rises above its racial conflicts, we will need to engage in this kind of exercise of understanding that takes us beyond simplicity and stereotype, prejudice and fear.