October 24, 2015, by Michael Jennings

Race and rights: screening of Fruitvale Station

By Hannah-Rose Murray, PhD student in the Department of American and Canadian Studies. She is a research associate with the Centre for Research in Race and Rights, and a co-convener of the October Dialogues 2015. Her PhD focuses on transatlantic abolitionism and African American resistance against racism in nineteenth century Britain.

In celebration of Black History Month 2015, I held a screening and post-film discussion of Fruitvale Station on Wednesday 14 October. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, the film depicts the last few days of Oscar Grant III’s life, an African American killed by police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California in January 2009. Aged just 22 years old, Grant was returning from a New Years Eve party with his girlfriend when he was stopped by police after an altercation on the subway. He was forced to the ground and fatally shot in the back by Mehserle. The film was critically acclaimed, and won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and went on to win the Best First Film Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Thought-provoking and devastating, Fruitvale Station seemed to have a great impact on the audience, several of whom became emotional with the violence and grief depicted.

Before the film started, I wanted to point viewers towards several important themes. In the first twenty minutes of the film, Grant comforts a dying pit-bull who has just been run over in the street. The director and star, Michael B. Jordan, explained in an interview that black males were “America’s pit-bull”: several individuals (including Mike Brown) had been left to die in the street and the media never reported anything positive about a pit-bull. Jordan refers to the media’s tendency to focus on the criminality of the black victim of police brutality, instead of the issue at heart – how police should protect the community instead of murder members of it. This led to a discussion on how journalists reported the deaths of citizens and the biases it reflected, together with the fact we know the names of many black men who have been killed by police but cannot name so many women. The injustice towards Sandra Bland and Marissa Anderson for example are just two cases where black women have suffered greatly under the criminal system, and it was argued more should be done to bring their stories to light, particularly on this side of the Atlantic.

The second theme I introduced was the spectacle of black death. The film opens with the video of Grant being shot, which went viral in the wake of his death. Do we as an audience become desensitized to the videos of Grant, Walter Scott and Eric Garner? At what point should we cease to watch these videos, and feed a morbid fascination with the macabre scenes of death? Some argued it was necessary to watch these videos, as it reinforced our sense of humanity and it was impossible to become desensitized to something as violent and unjust as this.

There was a general feeling amongst the audience that Merserle’s story should have been more evident – what were the reasons why he shot Grant and how do perceptions of black males seep into the overwhelmingly white police force? Others felt that instead of a sole focus on black criminality or death the media should report on any positive consequences that came out of a tragedy. For example, the Oscar Grant Foundation seeks to educate others about Grant’s death and pledges to support black communities and those who have been affected by police violence.

Finally, the discussion moved towards racism and police brutality in Britain. Organisations such as the Institute of Race Relations (formed in 1958) have reported on human rights abuses and in a 2015 report entitled Dying for Justice listed 509 people of colour and those from ethnic minorities who had been abused or killed by police from 1991-2014.[1] In the wake of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, protest groups in Britain denounced police brutality and unlawful arrests on a global scale. In November 2014, men and women took to the streets in London and marched to the U.S. Embassy holding placards reading “Black Lives Matter” and chanting, “we stand with Ferguson.”[2]

The screening of Fruitvale Station highlighted the complex discussions emerging from police brutality cases in both the UK and the USA, and how emotive and traumatic these events can be. The film and debate afterward led to much food for thought and provided an interesting insight into the influence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement today.

[1] Institute of Race Relations, Press Release for Dying for Justice, (20 March 2015), [online], accessed 13 July 2015, http://www.irr.org.uk/dying-for-justice/

[2]The Guardian, 26 November 2014, [online], accessed 13 July 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/26/ferguson-grand-jury-decision-protest-us-embassy-london

Originally posted on the View From the Arts blog.

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