Even before the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case came down, critics were drawing parallels between Martin, who was shot dead by Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, and Oscar Grant, who on New Year’s Day, 2009 was shot dead by a Bay Area transit officer while he was lying face down on a subway platform. Grant’s story is national news not because of new developments — officer Johannes Mehserle, who said he thought he was firing his newly issued Taser, received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and was released in June of 2011; federal civil-rights charges against him are pending — but because of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s docufictional account of Grant’s last 24 hours on earth.
In reviews of Fruitvale Station, variations on the word “weep” are never far off (Google counts 192,000 common uses). At Sundance, where the movie won the Grand Jury Prize, the largely white audiences broke down in collective tears, mourning the death of an innocent man who, based on the movie they’d just seen, was a loving father and boyfriend who was just starting to turn his sometimes troubled life around. He flushes a brick of marijuana he’d been planning to sell down the toilet — the equivalent of burning money — even though he’s recently been fired from his legitimate job at a supermarket, and pauses in his daily rounds to cradle a dying dog in his arms. When the police come, breaking up an altercation started by a racist ex-con Grant bumped heads with in prison, he’s defiant but not combative, clearly not doing anything to merit being subdued by force, let alone shot.
In my review of Fruitvale Station, I asked, “Does it matter that Oscar Grant loved his daughter, was kind to animals, helped strangers?” Upon further reflection, I don’t think that’s the right question, or at least it’s only one of them. Insofar as Fruitvale Station is the story of Oscar Grant, the details of who he was matter immensely, even if the film’s mildly beatific portrait seems like it’s composed of the kinds of things you say at someone’s funeral. But to the extent that Fruitvale Station trades on that portrait to invoke greater outrage about the killing of young nonwhite men, prompting the New York Times’ A.O. Scott to close his review by asking, “How could this have happened? How did we — meaning any one of us who might see faces like our own depicted on that screen — allow it?” — to that extent it’s intensely problematic, building necessary political anger on a foundation of squishy sentimentality.
In the trial of George Zimmerman, his defense attorneys used the marijuana in Martin’s bloodstream and cellphone pictures showing him holding a gun and flipping off the camera to paint Martin as an angry, potentially violent young man, one whom Zimmerman might reasonably have feared. Slate’s William Saletan drew a breathtaking equivalence between Zimmerman’s decision to treat a black man as a potentially armed robber — the “they” in “They always get away” — with Martin telling his girlfriend he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker”; never mind that “creepy-ass” is an accurate description of a strange man following you, first in his car and then on foot.
Martin, Zimmerman’s defenders argue, was no saint — and perhaps he wasn’t. (He is tragically unable to testify in his own defense.) But the real question is: Why does it matter? Who cares if Martin used, or even sold, drugs, if he made obscene gestures or used unkind words? Does it change the fact that he was pursued, that Zimmerman engaged him after the police told him there was no need for him to do so, and in a manner that laid the groundwork for a one-on-one confrontation? (A real law enforcement officer, not a vigilante high on his own adrenaline, would have waited for backup, greatly reducing the likelihood of whatever altercation may have taken place.)
Bringing the victim’s character into play, even as a means of generating sympathetic outrage, opens the door to its mirror image. If Grant wasn’t as noble as he’s portrayed in Fruitvale Station — an S.F. Weekly story says the movie “falls short of lionizing Grant, but still participates in his sanctification” — would that make his death less unjust, or make the need for reform any less urgent? Fruitvale Station makes people cry, but crying’s not enough.