I “can’t” watch ‘Fruitvale Station’ and here’s why:

27 Jan

Scott Raab: People are not comfortable with any kind of dialogue about race.

Steve McQueen: The first crtiques of ’12 Years a Slave’ were “it’s brutal. Brutal, brutal, brutal.” That did not keep the audiences away, because the audiences wanted to engage. The audiences wanted to communicate with it. It was basically telling the truth about a certain time in history……..

Scott Raab: I had a conversation this morning about the movie with a liberal, Jewish friend…I said ‘You must see this.’ He said, ‘That subject’s very hard for me.’

Steve McQueen: So therefore you surround yourself with people who aren’t difficult for you. People are not talking enough. But people are going to see this movie. It’s doing tremendous financially. It’s in the top ten movies. The book is on the best seller list.

Scott Raab: That’s wonderful.

Steve McQueen: People want to engage. It’s too easy to brush things off.

Scott Raab: It’s a different kind of imprisonment to to brush things off. One of the themes in your films is the effect of brutality on those who perpetuate and witness it.

Steve McQueen: Everyone hurts. Everyone, everyone…..”

[This interview with 12 Years a Slave and Hunger director Steve McQueen is an excerpt from Esquire magazine’s Weird Men issue, February 2014]

I’m finding that many people did not know Oscar Grant’s story before Fruitvale Station was released. I was not one of those people.

My mother first introduced me to who I am. As recently as a few years ago ( aka a “younger” me) I was often eager to watch films that depicted black history, or black biographies, or told the stories of the many injustices done to black people. My mother would surely acknowledge some of the contemporary works created and even engage in discussions surrounding these works, but would sometimes turn away from watching them.

She’d say, “I don’t want to watch that” or “I can’t watch that I’ll get angry all over again.” And  I would often mentally chastise her, feeling that she was being hypocritical and overemotional.

It was puzzling. Wasn’t she the former Black Panther member? And the one who introduced me to black authors and classical black literature? To the autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Malcolm X? It is because of my mother, that in my childhood I knew of the black national anthem, of bell hooks, of Billie Holiday, and of Four Little Girls.

It is my mother who, while my siblings and I were growing up during the 90’s, wouldn’t allow us to listen to much current music, but instead constantly played (and still does) “old school” music  making sure we knew our musical black history. Yes, Salt n’ Pepa and Jay-Z were shunned in our household. We knew the likes of James Brown, Minnie Ripperton, Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, Prince, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Nat “King” Cole, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.  Hadn’t my mother been the one who introduced me to our family’s roots in Cape Verde, Africa?

So how could this woman, who I’d roll my eyes at when she (often) made every current events issue a “black thing”, how could she refuse to pay homage to works done by and for our own people?

Well now I get it, and here’s why:

There have been a number of films made that thoroughly or, as closely as possible, depict the hardships, struggles, and tragedies that have befallen black people in America and each of them are a sore reminder of a brutality so strong that the consequences of their truth are still very much alive today. You can see it across America. Though it may be subtle now, it remains. And this isn’t theory or speculation, this is fact.


I was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard during the Trayvon Martin case. It was a beautiful day in mid-July and everyone on the island was seemingly carefree and in good spirits- this was the reality of the day. Except when my cousins and I turned on the TV to a trial being covered live by every news channel. A trial filled with controversy and strong emotions from everyone involved and everyone across the country. For those of us not there in the courtroom, like my cousins and I, we were the “witnesses.”  By the end of the day everyone knew the outcome of the case, social media and news outlets went wild, and we all settled into that new reality no matter who’s “side” we were on.  An unarmed, black child was killed in his own neighborhood by a grown white man who was armed and following a racist- founded “instinct”.  And I don’t doubt that in this case the proper judicial process wasn’t followed, but I do know for sure a man, like so many before him, who is a racist and a murderer was set free.

I was a witness to injustice, tragedy, loss, sorrow, and mass outrage; Trayvon Martin was dead, his murder still unjustly unaccounted for, his parents were live on TV weeping as George Zimmerman smiled and embraced his lawyers- and I was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard.

The hardest part of recalling these realities is that they are not just stories. They’re characters may be fictionalized, or sensationalized, but at their core they are very, very real. They speak to a sore spot that millions of Americans like myself will most likely not live to see completely healed. These works re-open the wound, that we are constantly trying to aid. Most of us are fortunate to not have to confront this wound head-on everyday like our ancestors, but we never forget.

And I never forgot Oscar Grant’s story when I read about it far before a film was ever created. Nor have I forgotten Sean Bell, Danroy Henry, Amadou Diallo, or most recently Renisha McBride. And there are many other names, and stories, and families who weep in court rooms and us- the witnesses. Who feel the sorrow in the pit of our stomach’s and the tears in our eyes, and most importantly the anger in our hearts.

I cannot, at least right now watch Fruitvale Station, not because I don’t want to have the conversation or because I don’t see the very real value in the engagement it encourages, but because I do know the story. I know of how Oscar Grant was unarmed, black and shot dead in the back at 22 very young years old. I know of the beautiful daughter he left behind. And I, as a re-occurring witness to the tragedy and evil that still slithers in the crevices of our country, am not yet ready to open the wound again.

Maybe, one day I will.


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