06 August 2013
A lot of coverage of the acclaimed Sundance film Fruitvale Station has centered on the Trayvon Martin connection. It makes sense. The tragedy that the film depicts shares DNA with the tragedy that captured America’s attention: young black man killed while unarmed, for seemingly very little reason. Hell, the two stories even share a “marijuana bag” backstory in common.
But I can’t talk about Trayvon Martin, and more importantly, right now I don’t want to. Right now, I want to talk about Tatayanna.
For those unfamiliar with the real-life story of Oscar Grant that Fruitvale Station evenhandedly and heartbrokenly depicts, the young man was out on New Year’s Eve with some friends. There was an incident on the San Francisco BART system. When Oscar and his friends were apprehended, the situation got tense until a police officer accidentally shot the unarmed Oscar in the back while he was in police custody. He died at the hospital.
That scene was really hard to watch. I sobbed so loud the people near me were concerned for my health. But the scene that really got me came much, much earlier in the film. Oscar’s mother (played wonderfully by Octavia Spencer) visits him in prison; their conversation is at once sweet, normal, and edged with something terrifying (represented by a pale bruise on Oscar’s cheek). And then some big man comes in and says four words to Oscar, and it’s a flipped switch. Gone is Michael B Jordan’s signature, non-threatening charm, his mama’s boy grace – replaced by a terror-fueled animalistic necessity to prove himself the biggest and baddest. He doesn’t even seem like the same kid. The movie is filled with moments where this fascinating and tragic dichotomy (born out of a survival instinct most people can’t understand) is beautifully underscored.
I’m about to get a little personal, and I apologize, because this film was really beautiful and totally stands on its own merits. But it also hit me on a gut level I’m not even sure I can fully explain. That moment of switch flipping hurt me with how familiar it looked. I spent two years, two incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking and amazing years, teaching kids in Baltimore City. I was an inadequate teacher – incapable of keeping my kids in line, unable to help them understand why what we were doing was so important, and eventually, so beaten down by the experience that it was hard just to get up and go in the morning. One of the things I struggled with the most as an educator was understanding that switch flipping. I would sit alone with my students for hours, talking and studying and really enjoying their company. And then there’d come a day in class when someone would say something, and I could watch my smart, interesting kids turn into terrified attackers. Normally it was something as simple as a “your mama,” and suddenly my kids felt unsafe. They turned completely into fight-or-flight mode and it was impossible (for me) to get them back.
So when I say I don’t want to talk about Trayvon, or even Oscar, I don’t mean to be dismissive. Michael B Jordan is amazing in this, and it’s heartening that a story like this is being told. But I want to talk about Tatayanna, the 5 year old girl who finds out on New Year’s Day why her father won’t be coming home again. And I want to talk about my Tatayanna*, the brllliant, straight A student with the mom who wouldn’t stop calling me, who flipped out in the middle of one of my lectures when another girl told her “that’s why your dad’s in prison.” And I want to talk about my other Tatayanna, who spent a week terrorizing the other kids in her sixth grade class until someone found out that her mother had just been picked up by the police and she was basically living by herself. And I want to talk about Tatayanna, who fought with her classmates every day using words I’d never even heard at age 12, but who sobbed like a baby the second I had her alone.
I want to talk about the fifteen thousand factors that got Oscar on that train that night, that set him up to get in a senseless fight, and that led to a moment of horrible chance. The movie, which I realize I’ve veered a little ways away from, is brilliant because it touches on all of these ideas without dwelling. It tells a straightforward story – Oscar from waking up to the moment his mother sees his body. But in watching that day, it touches on the terrifying, stultifying interplay of race, poverty, prison and chance that leads to tragedy, without ever feeling preachy. It’s challenging, beautiful filmmaking and absolutely essential, if upsetting, viewing. And my solipsistic reaction to it is just one of many. There are countless stories to be told about the strange conglomeration that is 21st century race relations in the United States, and I for one am excited as hell that we’re finally getting to see them.
*Names, obviously, changed.