Some Thoughts on Fruitvale Station, and No Angel

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.”

--Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

I’ve been thinking about the movie Fruitvale Station, the way—because it begins with Oscar Grant’s death, and because it only becomes a story at all by reference to that morbid telos—it always threatens to become a story about the “value” of Oscar Grant’s life. The entire movie grows from that narrative stem: when Oscar Grant was killed, what was it that died? What was lost? Was he a good person, to be mourned?

I use the word “value,” however, with a sense of loss and regret, and not because of the squandered “value” of his life. That’s a strange way to think about what a person is, to think about a life being “squandered.” There is a word for what happens to a person when you turn them into something whose value can be enumerated, when you commodify the worth of their life so that it has a price. If a life has a price, it can be bought. More to the point, there is a real violence that comes from imagining that a life must have value to be a thing that can be grieved. When you die, will you be mourned because you brought “value” to your society? Will the extent of the loss of you be summed up in terms of how far your credits outweighed your debits?

Fruitvale Station cannot help but answer the question of the value of Oscar Grant’s life, because these are the terms that are forced upon it, the question it cannot not answer. It’s not a criticism of the movie to observe, then, that it shows us an Oscar Grant whose life is worth something, or that his value to the world around him is an important part of what makes it possible to be sad and outraged at his death. We think this way because these are the words and thoughts that are available to us, and the movie is what it is because of what it is forced to be. But the movie is also rather superb in its ability to start from the standard tropes of pathologized black male life—the job, the child, selling drugs, jail—and to build the story of a person struggling to live within a world that will give him life only grudgingly, that forces him to reckon with these, as the terms on which he will be suffered to live. The Oscar Grant that the movie shows us, then, is no angel, but neither is he a devil: if the movie succeeds, it is because it makes those words irrelevant, because we stop caring about that. If the movie succeeds in making it possible for us to grieve Oscar Grant—a stranger to the vast majority of us, until the moment we heard of his death—it does so by doing something different than measuring his value as a human being and finding it to be a positive rather than a negative number.

"I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something."

—Ryan Coogler

The idea that life “means something” in the abstract is a trap: it gives us the language by which we might say a particular life means nothing, or is worth nothing. Murderers become bare life because they have killed, after all, which means it is (perversely) respect for the value of life that allows us to take life without moral penalty. A policeman can kill someone on the street—or on a BART platform—if they can judge that person’s existence to be a negative on the abstract scoreboard of social life: the life of a particular person representing a threat to “life” (as it is socially construed) can be extinguished, and even must be.

For Coogler, here, the main point is not that Grant’s life measured up to some abstract standard of value, that because he was a good kid, he didn’t deserve to die. If he wasn’t a good kid, would he deserve to die? No, the point is that knowing him as a life in motion, knowing and seeing and feeling him as a person—in the intimate ways that watching a movie enables—forces us to get attached to what disappears when he dies, in ways that have nothing necessarily to do with whether his life had an abstract value to society. We mourn people who have become a part of us, people in whose humanity we see reflections of ourselves and our loves, not because they have value or are without flaw, but because they are ours. If you know a person—if you really know them—you will find it difficult not to mourn their death. You will feel their absence, and it will mark a part of you that is now absent, forever.  You will not need to ask whether their life had “value”; instead of counting, you will simply feel.

If Fruitvale Station succeeds, it’s because it transcends the terms of its genre. As a story about a young black male life, it begins with all of the stories that are told about young black men and their value: jobs, children, crime, and family. But it becomes a powerful movie because it doesn’t end there, because, at a certain point, you stop caring about “Oscar Grant” for his efforts to be a good father or whatever. You stop judging him. He becomes a person, a person not reducible to the question of whether his life has value. You feel him. He is a part of you.

The now-notorious “No Angel” article in the NY Times yesterday fails because it does not transcend the terms of its genre. Its editors should have known better; its writer does seem to know better, or at least acknowledges that he could have written it differently, and should have. I suspect that what he admits publicly about an “ill-chosen phrase” also covers over the realization that that phrase grew from a problematic premise, and I hope that next time, he won’t fall into that trap. Such an article could never have succeeded. A two hour movie has the time and space to grow out of its original premise; a brief newspaper article that begins from the St. Peter-like premise of “Angel or Devil?” is not going to, is only going to make it easier to reduce the irreducible complexity of human beings into a yea or nay, into an obscene referendum of whether a person is to live or die. And by what right would you or I ever have to make that decision? What monstrous arrogance would ever make us even attempt to pretend we should try?