“Fruitvale Station” and the Need for Black Male Rebranding

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The film “Fruitvale Station” is the most powerful movie I’ve seen in some time.  The director (Ryan Coogler) and lead actor (Michael B. Jordan) should be nominated for Oscars. They were most successful in humanizing Oscar Grant and portraying him in a way we don’t often see Black males onscreen–and sometimes even in real life–as multidimensional. (PLOT SPOILER ALERT.)

As a recent Huffington Post article pointed out, Grant was both a saint and a sinner. He was a great dad, but couldn’t stay out of jail. He loved his girlfriend and momma, but cheated on and cursed them. He was in a gang, but was a loyal friend, right until death. He was handed very few opportunities in life, yet ruined the few that he had. His struggle to be a better young man, in spite of his tough circumstances, was very apparent. It was as if the actor and director were challenging us to find a young man, of any ethnicity, who wasn’t in some way like Oscar Grant.

That they made Grant dangerously, beautifully, and fully human should be the legacy of this film. Young Black males could definitely use more of that, as we have a serious branding problem! As a juror from the Trayvon Martin case–the one who “couldn’t identify” with him–recently reminded us, Black males are often seen as devoid of [full] humanity and undeserving of justice.

Even worse, it’s a view that decontextualizes so-called “black-on-black” crime, which many point to as an example of our moral backwardness and lack of humanity. What those who take that view fail to realize is that (a) all Americans are legally entitled to justice, regardless of whether they were victimized by someone from their community, and (b) a number of Blacks have internalized a unique sense of hopelessness and despair, which is often a militating factor in some Black folk’s decision to engage in criminal behavior and to view other Blacks as worthy victims.

Unfortunately, this is what comes along with 246 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow segregation, and 50 years of broken educational systems, mass incarceration, mass influxes of drugs, and the mass exportation of urban jobs.  Put another way, it’s what happens when you’re seen as a threat to society and pushed to its fringes.

While this film certainly is not the magic elixir, it is a start–a start to the cultural push that can recast Black males in a new light.  If the 90s showcased a number of “in tha hood” movies that highlighted Black male frustration, anger, and violence, then the current decade is as good a time as any for an onslaught of films that portray Black males as hopeful, intelligent, positive, and likable.  Of course, movies alone, however well-intentioned, will not lift people out of poverty, or provide impoverished communities with better schools and jobs.  But they will inspire.  They can change people’s hearts and minds, just as The Cosby Show and Oprah Winfrey did a generation ago.  When people stop seeing Black males as thugs and criminals, they may start believing that it is unjust for the police to shoot us in our backs when we are laying face-down and handcuffed.  We have been viewed as “America’s worst nightmare” for far too long.  The time has come for us to be seen as America’s best leaders, thinkers, and creators.  We need a serious rebranding campaign!

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