The misfortunes in ‘Fruitvale Station’ lie closer to home

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN March 27, 2018

“Fruitvale Station,” a film released in 2013, tells the story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer early New Year’s Day 2009.

Oscar was unarmed, lying facedown and handcuffed. The film captures his last 24 hours of life, interacting with his daughter, his mother, his girlfriend. I saw it twice last week on Netflix. It left me overwhelmed and angry but admiring the director, Ryan Coogler, who is now, and will likely forever be, better known for directing the blockbuster “Black Panther.” Michael B. Jordan is the main character in both films.

I do not know anyone like the mythical heroes in “Black Panther,” but I have come to know several guys like Oscar Grant. I drove one of them, I will call him Oscar II, to court last week so he could make payment on his restitution obligation for a crime he plead guilty to a couple years ago.

Oscar II is a big guy with a full bucket of everyday concerns—his health, keeping his job, keeping his housing. I met him a couple years ago and learned a lot about him, his daily challenges, and the confusing complexities of the so-called criminal justice system.

Oscar II is older than Oscar Grant, and he has a son who is now about Oscar’s age. He attended Columbia Public Schools, but I’m pretty sure he never graduated from high school. Oscar II has pointed out the many streets in Columbia, and several houses in surrounding counties, where he has lived.
He is a gregarious guy who knows lots of people. Oscar II is now middle-aged and may have been in a good deal of trouble in his youth. I have learned about his children, for whom he is still paying child support, and about the three low-wage part-time jobs he is now juggling. I know of several previous brushes with the law, including a DWI, that have left him rather isolated because he “wants to avoid trouble.”

Spending a few hours with Oscar II gives an opportunity to talk about basketball, why weather forecast doesn’t seem to be right very often, and the aches and pains that come with age. Oscar II says he is lucky because he has a reliable place to stay. He doesn’t plan very well. Many of his challenges are due to decisions he made, or didn’t make, in previous months and years.

Oscar II is a resilient, pleasant guy, with a sense of humor. He gets stressed out worrying he will be late for his hearing and never complains when he must wait an hour while the judge allows the defendants with lawyers who, he knows, will go before him.

“Fruitvale Station” is gripping because it is so realistic. Oscar Grant is not an angry black man, nor is he a thug. He is imperfect in many ways, yet he seemed to be trying to straighten himself out. He remembered his mother’s birthday, was figuring out how to get out of the drug trade and wanting to get his job back.

The criminal justice system has not served either man well. Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station was pulled off the Bay Area transit station because of a ruckus where he was defending himself. Neither he nor his buddies were armed. The police were not in jeopardy until they placed themselves in jeopardy. The officer who shot and killed Oscar was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent time in prison.

Oscar II has been caught in a criminal justice maze that may make sense to lawyers and judges but not to the uninitiated. Oscar II was in danger of having his probation revoked because he erroneously thought court costs had been part of the restitution payment schedule. Either his public defender had not noticed, or the judge talked too fast for Oscar II, or me, to fully understand.
“Fruitvale Station” illustrates Oscar’s mother’s love and concern for him, her guilt over encouraging him to take the Bart train on New Year’s Eve so he would not be tempted to drink and drive. Fruitvale Station shows Oscar’s striving to do better with his baby’s mama and his daughter.

“Fruitvale Station” is an engaging film, even if Oscar had not been just another of the police shootings of unarmed black men across our country. “Black Panther” is a huge success, but “Fruitvale Station” shows the humanity, the normality, of a young black man.

There are lots of Oscars in Columbia and America. We need to see more films like “Fruitvale Station,” despite how unpleasant stories they tell.

Original link

I saw “Black Panther”

I saw “Black Panther” and am glad I did. I am a novice when it comes to action movies. I thought Marvel was only a paper comic book. I was not aware that “Black Panther” debuted in 1966. I belong to a Social Justice Arts Group that discusses films with a high racial content. To be honest, if members of that group had not suggested we next discuss “Black Panther,” I might not have ever known about it. Now I feel I am kewl (as kids said back in the 90’s) I feel like I now know about a secret world that everyone knew about but me.

I watched “Black Panther” early Sunday evening of Presidents Day weekend (opening weekend). The theatre had at least five other showings that day and my showing was packed: Blacks, whites, young and old, a few couples, more families, lots of guys. My biggest surprise was they all acted like they had been waiting for this move since 2014, when it was first announced. Moreover, they knew to stay seated after the first conclusion because more action would follow. They seemed to already know that there will be a sequel in two years.

I fully appreciate the significance of the first blockbuster Hollywood film with a black director but as an action-packed fantasy film, race was not the dominant lens for me. It wasn’t like “I am Not your Negro” or “Detroit.” I expect the box office success of “Black Panther” will boost many production and acting careers and may lead to more “culturally diverse” films. I am appalled, but should have expected, that anti-Black sentiments tried to sabotage the Rotten Tomatoes ratings (currently 97) in hopes of surprising enthusiasm for the film.

I enjoyed the technological wizardry but grew tired of some of the physical conflict. I know, I know—it is an action film. I personally liked the scenes short in Pusan, S. Korea, because I recognize them, but I don’t imagine most Americans particularly cared where they took place. There were at least five witty lines I appreciated and probably would have noticed more if I had not been enthralled by the cyber gymnastics.

Two quotes have returned to my thinking several times this week. They are:
1. One of the main characters (who had ancestors brought to America from Africa) says “throw me off the ship like my ancestors. It is better to be dead than in bondage.”
2. The ending—which I won’t spoil for you.

I am eagerly waiting our discussion group to learn about significant parts that I missed. I am proud of myself, however, that I noticed the ambiguity surrounding the fate of the main rival of the king.

Here are some links that may be of interest:
1. New York Times review

2. Washington Post

3. An interesting analysis I found on Facebook (but it is a spoiler)

added 3/14
from THE Christian Century

Campus sex culture meets public policy

David Webber Columbia Missourian Oct 30, 2017

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus” is the most thought-provoking book I have read this year — not because of its tales of sexual encounters (although it is a bit shocking to readers over 50) but because it is a street-level report from a political and social revolution in progress.

Grigoriadis’ approach is to understand and solve a problem rather than engage in rhetorical warfare. She artfully shows the importance of language, ideology and culture in shaping public opinion and public policy. She argues that most cases of college sexual assault are better labeled as “acquaintance assault” rather than “date rape.” The term “sexual assault” itself needs clarification.

Continue reading

Springsteen Says It Best: What Writing Is Like (for me, too).

Springsteen Says It Best: What Writing Is Like (for me, too).          

               I re-discovered Bruce Springsteen in about 2009 and have enjoyed re-learning about myself by re-considering his old stuff and listening to how he talks, and writes, about his life. In preparing for his upcoming “Bruce on Broadway” he gave a long interview to the New York TIMES where, of all things, he captured what creating writing is like. Continue reading

The Two Young Men Legislative Candidates in “Practicing Democracy”

The Two Young Men Legislative Candidates in “Practicing Democracy”

          In “Practicing Democracy” Tom Kelly and Ryan Brown are two ambitious young candidates aspiring for the state legislature who meet an elder statesman (Mr. Adams) aspiring to restore democracy. Tom and Ryan reflect the hundreds of young male students I have taught as a college professor. They are representatives of types of young men I am familiar with but are not composites of specific people (as Mr. Adams, the main character, is). Continue reading

Synopsis and Characters “Practicing Democracy”

“Practicing Democracy,” which I wrote, will be performed in Columbia, Mo September 21-23, 2017 at 7:30 and September 24 at 2:00 at Missouri United Methodist Church (9th Street).  Below is a synopsis and list of characters.

Tickets are at

Two ambitious young candidates aspiring for the state legislature meet an elder statesman aspiring to restore democracy. The mix of campaign practices and information technology provide challenges and opportunities affecting the election result. The play is in two acts—pre-campaign and the campaign and Election Day.
SETTING: Almost any medium-sized town in America.
TIME: Current
MR. ADAMS, 75, military hero, Marine in Viet Nam, former two-term legislator, retired bank president.
TOM KELLY, mid-30s, insurance salesman, family man.
RYAN BROWN, mid-30, had a variety of jobs, mostly politics; an Army Vet.
CONNIE SCHMIDT, early 40s, an experienced campaign consultant (could be a man–Charlie).
JENNY TURNER, young, TV reporter (could be a young man–Jason)