Fruitvale Station in the Feminist Classroom
Fruitvale Station. Directed by Ryan Coogler. New York: The Weinstein Company, 2013. 85 minutes.
Fruitvale Station (2013) is one of those films that just had to become an opportunity for a teaching moment. Were it not for the fact that this film could contribute greatly to our learning and growth, it would be just one more tragic story in the United States’ long history of senseless, state-sanctioned killings of our young American Black men. To bring this film into the feminist classroom is to commit to a vision of feminism that prioritizes intersectionality and interrogates the racialization of gender, and in particular, Black masculinity.
Oscar Grant is the protagonist/antihero of Fruitvale Station and the film is a fictional narrative of a day-in-the-life of Grant; sadly for him and his family, this is a chronicle of the last day of his life. Like Mike Brown, and many other young Black males, Grant’s story is a dark bildungsroman, one that is particular to young Black men in America. Frequently in such stories the lives of these young men are tragically cut to the quick at the precipice of adulthood, a time that is often fraught with self-discovery, bravado, and bad decisions.
This film asks us to contemplate the ways that Black children are robbed of their childhood and the challenges Black families face as they attempt to raise young people in a society that consistently devalues Black lives. A feminist approach to this topic brings into focus the ways that gender, race, sexuality, and class intersect and challenges the stereotypical dynamics of the hetero-nuclear family. Feminist, Black Feminist, and the various other incarnations of feminism can begin to include more study and understanding of Black parents, single parent families, and other nontraditional family types. How do we begin to articulate this ontology of the Black family and include it in the feminist classroom?
The difficulties in addressing the tough questions about this violence persist and raise others, including how does a young man, whose hands are cuffed behind his back, face down on the floor, with no weapon of any sort, end up dead while being openly recorded by dozens of rail passengers? Some of the possible answers to this question lies in the concept/movement known as #Blacklivesmatter. #Blacklivesmatter manifested as a result of the fact that Black lives do not matter in the American culture, specifically those of young Black men and boys. As Black people we know it because we live it time and time again. We knew it before the time of 13-year-old Emmett Till’s killing in the 1950s and we will likely continue to know this beyond the recent killing of 19-year-old Tony Robinson.
Despite the important distinctions in violence against Black bodies, the pattern suggests that many things are needed in the culture to examine and address this decades old, yet ongoing trend. We must address and provide education about this cultural phenomenon in the classroom, before young people become officers of the law. How can educators approach this subject in the various types of classrooms? In the high school and college classroom it would be useful to teach the film Fruitvale Station and to consider approaching the film using a Black feminist lens.
Perhaps a study of mothers is one place to start. The distraught Black mother/parent in unfathomable pain is one that likely goes back further than our ability to capture it. It has been documented in photographs, such as the iconic image of Mamie Till Mobley beside her son Emmett’s coffin. Two decades later author Alex Haley’s genealogy was chronicled in the historic television miniseries Roots. The guttural wail when Kunta Kinte’s mother learns of his capture by European slave traders remains palpable through the small screen to this day.
Dr. Robin M. Boylorn, assistant professor of intercultural communication at the University of Alabama contributed a blog post to the Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC) in April 2015 titled “A Black Mother’s Love (or What Love Looks Like in Public).” Dr. Boylorn theorizes intersectionally about the public spectacle of the Black mother’s love through the ages and how recent incarnations of that love have been represented in the media. Responding in part to the images that circulated of Baltimore mom Toya Graham whooping her son’s ass all the way home when she recognized him while watching the events unfold on television, Boylorn explores how Black mothers’ pain has been constructed and represented. Boylorn explains:
We have seen the way black mothers have been represented during the years-long move/ment for justice. Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) was respectable. Lesley McSpadden (Michael Brown’s mother) was not. Lucia McBath (Jordan Davis’ mother) was respectable. Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice’s mother) was not. The media portrays “respectable” mothers as compliant, quiet mourners who demand justice but do so solemnly. Respectable mothers are constructed as married or marryable, God-fearing, well dressed and visibly middle class.1
Graham, in her particular display of a Black mother’s pain, is likely to be vilified by some people. Like many of the Black youth that have been killed, she may be eventually suffer the “no angel” syndrome because of her Hip-hop clothing style and her mode of corporal discipline. Like many of the lost Black youth, she might be deemed as deserving of punishment, harsh criticism, and negative repercussions because she is not portrayed as the other “respectable” mothers whom Boylorn writes about.
“No angel” is a term that has been repeated in media representations of several of the young Black men who have been killed. In analyzing some of the footage and documentaries on the murder of Emmett Till, the “no angel” rhetoric is apparent if not explicitly stated, existing tacitly among the interviews and commentaries. The idea of “no angel” is one that has circulated throughout American culture. A history of this type of rhetoric can be traced back to the development of the slave plantation “good nigger” or “house nigger” contrasted with the “brute” stereotype or the runaway slave. As a result, a binary developed around Blacks in American history that casts the image of the demonic Black rebel against the angelic, long suffering Black martyr. During the civil rights era this characterization played out through the media representation of the different leadership styles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The idea that as a Black person, one must rise to an almost angelic status at every intersection of existence—ethically, morally, educationally, economically—or be deemed inherently evil and deserving of death and destruction defines the “no angel” rhetoric.
On the surface, journalist John Eligon’s lengthy profile of Michael Brown seems to be a compassionate piece about Brown’s fate; however, upon further reading we arrive at the following paragraph:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer [Darren] Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.2
In teaching Fruitvale Station, I find that the college-aged students relate to the “no angel” title through their own lives, which are often filled with poor decisions and the immaturiy of youth. In discussing my own youth as a teen growing up in the streets and making my share of bad choices we ponder the possibilities of our own survival under similar circumstances. Questions come up in the class such as, could I be killed, or my classmate? Would the killing be justified in the public’s mind because I am “no angel”? Whenever I have asked for a show of hands in the class in response to the question, “Who among us are the angels here?” no hands rise—certainly not my own.
Admittedly, this can be a difficult subject to broach in all of the various configurations of classroom demographics, whether the composition is urban students of color, rural white students, or some combination thereof. In a recent “Introduction to Ethnicity and Race” class, one Black female student from Washington, DC, approached me after the class and expressed concern about being able to tolerate the class. She was worried about possible future comments from and encounters with white classmates, many of whom hail from rural areas of Ohio, and still use the term “colored” to refer to people of color. Challenges in the classroom also relate to my position as an urban Black woman offering views regarding ethnicity and race to a predominantly white rural classroom composition. All of these factors, concerns, and challenges require that students understand the racialized systems of the country and the racist structure that underlies many of the values and beliefs that they have been taught prior to this class. Balancing topics such as white privilege, racialized police brutality, and the experiences of students of color with these can be tricky.
Fortunately, Oscar Grant’s mother, Rev. Wanda Johnson has founded The Oscar Grant Foundation. She travels the country to raise awareness about police brutality against young Black men and has collaborated with the San Francisco Film Society to develop a teaching tool for educators wishing to bring this controversial subject into the classroom.3 This particular classroom guide is currently designed for grades 9-12; however, I teach the film in my current Introduction to Ethnic Studies classroom, which is comprised of mostly first- and second-year undergraduates. I also used the guide to prepare for my role as commentator for the screening of Fruitvale Station at Bowling Green State University. The guide is a valuable source of information for several reasons. First, it helps contextualize the film and connect Grant’s story to similar recent events. Regarding media literacy, it provides students with the tools to critique and deconstruct media imagery of all types, which is often a part of the feminist classroom.
1 Robin M. Boylorn, “A Black Mother’s Love (or What Love Looks Like in Public),” Crunk Feminist Collective, April 28, 2015.
2 John Eligon, “Michael Brown Spent His Last Weeks Grappling with Problems and Promise,” New York Times, August 24, 2014.
3 To access this resource, see http://filmed.sffs.org/film-ed/teaching-tools/introduction