Friday, August 16, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

In my life, I've had encounters with police twice - however, they turned out to be misunderstandings both times. The first time was here in New York, in my Queens neighborhood. I was walking down a street; I forget where I was headed, but it doesn't matter. A cop car from the opposite side of the street turned around to my side, and one of the cops asked me to approach. Hesitantly, I did so, heart pounding in my chest as I prepared to break out my identification. I asked what the problem was and as soon as they got a good look at me, and more importantly, heard my voice, they apologized. They were looking for a missing person, they said, a mentally retarded man who must have strayed from home or something. I clearly wasn't who they were searching for, so they let me go on my way. I gladly did.

The other time was when I lived in Columbus. It was late at night, and I was on my bike, riding home down a wide main street in a lower-class neighborhood. As I passed beneath an elevated train track, I heard the bleep of a siren. A cop car was indicating for me to pull over. I did, and this time they wanted to make sure my tail light was on. It was a little bit dimmer than usual, but it was definitely on and flashing red. They apologized; they were either mistaken or didn't see my bike from their position. They let me go and I continued home.

I don't think I need to convey to you how very fortunate I was both times. It's hard to convey what it means to live in... caution of the police as a black man, especially in New York. While I try not to paint every cop with the same brush, the fact remains that the NYPD has a long history of shooting first and asking questions later when it comes to people of color. 

I see cops all the time, both on the subways and in the streets, and when I do, I have to watch them out of the corner of my eye to make sure they're not looking at me. When I see them, I make a conscious effort to look innocuous and unassuming. In my neighborhood, I know which streets are trouble spots and I avoid them whenever possible. I make every effort I can to evade trouble - yet I also know that because of my size, I can come across as intimidating to some. (Smaller than Refrigerator Perry, bigger than Chris Rock. My height tends to offset my width somewhat.) People, black as well as white, make assumptions about me as a result. And it's not like I go around with a perpetual smile on my face. I live in New York! What's there to smile about?

I refuse to live in fear of the police, though. If I get stopped and frisked at some point in the future, for whatever reason, I'll respond as the situation warrants (though that may not happen for quite awhile now), but I can't stop living my life. I know I'm a law-abiding citizen and somehow, I have to have faith that I'll be recognized that way, that I won't be one more victim of racial profiling, that I won't get shot at by the very people who are supposed to protect people like me. But I can never be too sure.

That said, however - and this really must be said - there are too many black youths who don't know how to act! I see it almost every day: blaring their iPods on the buses; hanging out in front of bodegas late into the evening; starting fights in public places; and perhaps most egregiously, not knowing what a goddamn belt is for! Yes, I sound like an angry old man railing against the younger generation, but consider this: I grew up in a black neighborhood (one nicer than the one I live in now, but still). I was surrounded by similar temptations, exposed to similar cultural influences, so why am I the way I am now instead of a ghetto stereotype?

Again, I was luckier than most. I grew up with both my parents around, and they taught me right from wrong. From the fifth grade onward I went to culturally diverse schools, exposing me to different kinds of people. I valued education. And while I had occasional bouts of mischief, as most kids do, I stayed out of serious trouble. Does this make me unique somehow? There are times that I've wondered whether I am some manner of aberration for not listening to rap music (all the time, loudly), not running around in the street with other hood rats, not having babies with ridiculous names and abandoning them. 

Do I think I'm better than people like that? Sometimes. I know I shouldn't; I know how that makes me sound, but it's so damn embarrassing, after all we've been through just to survive in this country and be regarded as equal to white people, to see other black people continue to act out the stereotypes, especially within the media, when all I wanna do is scream at them, "You should know better!" 

You should know better.

But then I remember that that's far, far from the whole story of the black experience in America... and that the other side doesn't get shown as much as it should. Why do you think I've written about all these quality black films getting made lately?

All of which leads me to Fruitvale Station. Oscar Grant was somebody who tried to buck the stereotypes. He did not abandon his babymama; he was an active presence in his child's life and he tried to do the right thing, even if he didn't always succeed. And his reward was a bullet through the chest by an overeager cop. Some reviews have said that this movie deifies Grant to some extent, but I didn't see that - not completely, anyway. The mistakes he made in his life were presented quite clearly, I thought, and without prejudice. The beauty of this movie is in its simplicity.

On a completely unrelated matter: I hope Grant's mother still doesn't feel guilty for being the one to suggest that he take the train that fateful night, not only because there's no way she could've known what would've happened, but because it was good advice. A major event such as a New Year's Eve fireworks show will obviously attract tons of people, and better they should use public transportation to get there than jamming the highways and thoroughfares with cars.

In Fruitvale Station, we see Grant driving around everywhere, and it looks as if he probably relied on his car a great deal - to get to work, to drop off and pick up his daughter from pre-school, to visit his mother, etc. We also see a few shots of the BART trains in-between scenes. They take up a fair amount of Oakland, and I imagine Grant didn't use them much, but even he realized that they make a good alternative on certain occasions, which is good. 

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