Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and being black in 2013

Two summers ago, I was walking home from a jog that had become my Friday routine.  Right as I was nearing my house, I crossed the street at an intersection where a police car was at the stop sign.  All of a sudden, as I'm passing the car, a cop gets out it and starts questioning me about what I'm doing.  I told him that I was heading home from a jog and pointed to my house, which was literally around the corner.  At this point, I'm trying to be as friendly as possible because that's my natural tendency, but I can't help feeling nervous and wondering why I'm being stopped.  Just as I thought he was done with his line of questioning, the cop starts walking towards me and tells me to put my hands on my head.  Now I'm even more nervous, but I try to remember that there's no reason for him to arrest me.  He asks me if I have anything in my pockets, and I tell him about the house key in my right pocket and the headphones in my left pocket.  "Are you sure there's nothing else on you?," he asks before reaching in my pockets and seeing that I was telling the truth.

Keep in mind that this is occurring in the middle of the street in a suburb of South Florida, and his search and questioning has lasted long enough that there's another car waiting behind his car.  The officer now directs me to stand against his car so that the other car can pass, and I'd later dwell on the fact that the driver of that car probably thought I was actually guilty of something.  Wouldn't you think the same thing if you drove up to a stop sign and saw a sweaty black kid being frisked by a cop?  In that moment, I just wanted to tell the driver of the car and the cop himself that this was a mistake.  I'm on summer vacation from a university where I make straight A's!  I don't drink or smoke!  I've never committed a crime!  There was no reason for this!  Once the cop started to get the feeling that there was nothing he could bust me for, he took down my name and asked me a few more useless questions.  Then he just said "sorry, you matched the description of somebody," got in his car, and drove off.

I matched the description of somebody.  "Somebody."  "Somebody," who?  I just have a hard time believing that somebody called in a crime committed by a heavily sweating black male who's clearly wearing jogging clothes.  What's more likely is that this cop saw a young black guy and thought stopping him and searching him in the middle of the street was a safe enough bet.  Unlike alot of people my age, I generally don't have a problem with cops.  Before this event, I never dealt with them much, so I always thought of cops as people with the dangerous and stressful job of trying to make the world a safer place.  So for a little while, I got lost in a spiral of victim-blaming, wondering what I did to make that police officer want to stop me.  Maybe if I hadn't looked both ways before crossing the street, I wouldn't have looked so suspicious.  Maybe if I didn't have overactive sweat glands, he wouldn't have even noticed me without my drenched shirt.  It was such a small, but humiliating and demoralizing experience that it's almost like I didn't want to accept the idea of it not being my fault.  But the truth is that it wasn't my fault.  I didn't do anything wrong.  That moment left such an impression on me, to the point where people who've already heard the story probably wish that I would shut up about it already, but I just can't shake it.  My mind comes back to it again and again.

It came back to that moment just last week, when I was driving home from seeing Short Term 12.  I was stopped at a red light, when I heard some raised voices a few lanes over.  I figured it was just two people who knew each other, talking from the windows of their cars.  But when I looked over, I saw that there was a white man riding a bike on the sidewalk having an altercation with a black woman in a car.  They seemed to be arguing over something that happened at a previous intersection, and given his shouting about "right-of-way," I imagine he thought she cut him off.  I didn't see the event in question, so who knows who was right and who was wrong in that situation a mile or two back, but in the argument that followed, something undeniably wrong occurred.  I heard the man say to the woman, "...because I'm not a filthy fucking nigger like you!"  The woman, probably as shocked as I was, asked him to repeat what he said, and he -- even more defiantly -- said "A FILTHY FUCKING NIGGER" just as the light turned green and I had to drive away.

It seems like the natural thing to do would be to get angry about something like this, or the run-in that I had with that cop two years ago, but mostly it just makes me kind of sad.  We still live in a society where we can be categorically written off on race alone.  For me, my skin color and youth was enough to be considered suspicious or a threat.  For the woman in the car the other day, all that was needed was a disagreement about driving to confirm one man's vile assumptions.  And maybe you're tired of hearing black people -- or anybody who feels oppressed -- complain about injustice, but we complain because it sucks.  It sucks to know that no matter how smart I am, or how many words I know, or how nice and nonthreatening I try to be, my very existence is a problem for some people.  It's bad enough to feel like "the other," but it's even worse to feel like "the lesser."

12 Years a Slave, the latest film from visual-artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, takes things further, depicting a time where African Americans were seen as "the nothings."  It tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the perennially underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free man of the North who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s.  McQueen only gives you a brief glimpse of his life before the tragic event, enough to show you that he's an accomplished violinist, one who's loved by his family and many distinguished individuals of society.  After that he's yanked away pretty quickly, tricked and drugged by two men claiming to offer him an auspicious touring gig, and waking in chains.  There's some forceful filmmaking in these early parts, swiftly cutting from scene to scene, making the experience as disorienting for the audience as it is for Solomon.  In an economical sequence, we see the entire process of him being taken, beaten, and shipped off to the South like a product on the conveyor belt of some grand machine.  Like McQueen's other two films, 12 Years a Slave is free of any kind of hesitation, brutally depicting the grim reality of slavery.  Gone is the Hollywood filter through which these kinds of films are run -- much like what Solomon and the other slaves have to do, this film is grueling, harrowing work.

12 Years a Slave focuses on the reduction of human beings, the ways that slavery's machine-like efficiency rendered thousands of African Americans as nothing more than property.  There are many references to the value of blacks, as they are constantly referred to as "chattel" or "dogs."  These white men who are in charge of overseeing their work are so determined to never let the slaves ascend to any level approaching humanity in their minds, and Solomon quickly learns not to admit that he knows how to read and write, lest he be marked a dead man.  Any limitation we put on understanding something allows us to hold on to preconceived notions, and you can see that in the way the slave owners convince themselves that these slaves are animals, making it so much easier to force them to do back-breaking labor.

Where 12 Years a Slave depicts a period where many black people were dehumanized, Fruitvale Station aims to humanize a single black man.  This feature-length debut by director Ryan Coogler is also based on a true story; the film's subject is Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a black man who was shot in the back by a white cop at a BART station in Oakland on New Year's Day.  I saw this in theaters a few months ago and it's a film experience that's stuck with me, one that I found myself recalling while watching 12 Years a Slave.  Fruitvale may take place in 2009, centuries after the events of 12 Years, but it also fundamentally asks audiences to look closer at a horror that was somewhat overlooked by many people.  Nobody will ever be able to definitively say whether Oscar Grant was deliberately murdered by a white cop while posing no immediate threat or whether it was genuinely an accident, but the fact that there's even a shred of doubt indicates that we still haven't made complete progress.  The days of practices as overt as slavery are over, but there's still work to be done on the more insidious aspects of race relations in America.

There's a scene in the middle of Fruitvale Station where Oscar witnesses a dog being run over and left for dead in the street, and he runs over to cradle it.  It's a bit of symbolism that people who dislike the film often misinterpret as drawing direct parallels between the dog and Oscar, who died in a similarly deplorable way.  But the goal of the entire film itself is to show that Oscar is more than just a dog.  He was somebody with a full life, and his death is something that mattered.  Some complain about the accuracy of the way that he was portrayed, but I'd say that the larger point was not to show who the real Oscar Grant was as a person, but that he was a person.  Plus, the film doesn't shy away from shining a light on his flaws.  He wasn't shown as some kind of tragic hero; instead there's subtle pointing to the anger issues that cause him to get into the trouble that he does.

Before a few years ago, I didn't think about race issues very much, and it's something that's easy to overlook when you're in a situation like mine growing up.  I'm from a liberal area of a swing state, I went to the most racially diverse high school in my county, and the color of my skin was only ever brought up via gentle ribbing.  But the beauty of both 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station is that they don't they let you look away, forcing you to examine the ugliness that has existed throughout history.  The former accomplishes this through its use of long takes.  There's one of a slave beating that lasts about 3 minutes before cutting that's jaw-dropping --  both for its grisly, unflinching violence and bravura filmmaking.  The latter film, on the other hand, shows you a day in the life of Oscar Grant, warts and all, and demands that you value his existence regardless.  Both films have gotten exposure in the wider world -- Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance to much acclaim, 12 Years a Slave is generating significant Academy Award buzz -- and I'm glad that it's giving people the opportunity to have a better understanding of what being black feels like.  Every time something as rich and powerful as these two films comes out, the gap between who we are and who we are perceived to be gets just a bit narrower.

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