One of the reasons Trayvon Martin’s death has struck such a chord is that his killing adds another young black man to a tragic pantheon that includes Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo, and it gives the sense that learning lessons from one of these deaths doesn’t give us what we need to prevent the next one. Telling a young black man to respect the cops as the mother in Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots,” his remembrance of Diallo and now Martin, does doesn’t save that boy from a vigilante with a gun and the backing of a Stand Your Ground law. And it’s easy, because there are differences in these cases, to focus on them as individuals, rather than examining the sense of anger and entitlement that motivate both people like George Zimmerman and the cops who killed Diallo, and Bell, and Grant.
So in that light, I’m glad to see that a project from writer and director Ryan Coogler about the last day of Oscar Grant’s life is coming together, starring Michael B. Jordan, who should be considered a major, major talent, as Grant, and produced by Forest Whitaker. And I’m particularly glad that because Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer is involved, playing Grant’s mother, people will be required to pay attention to the movie rather than dismissing it as some sort of angry, marginal indie. The format of the movie will apparently follow Grant through the last day of his life, meaning that it will be framed in such a way to build sympathy between the audience and someone who will be murdered by its end, rather than offering up a black man as a vehicle for the exploration of a cop’s psyche and morals.
And in a sense, Spencer’s presence will make a valuable point for audiences who see both movies: black families face the same risk of seeing their children legally murdered today that they faced sixty years ago. The risks are different in intensity, the avenues to pursue justice and reform somewhat more accessible. But they’re still there. The Help did a major disservice to its audience in adapting the book in a way that removed images of white violence against blacks, whether it’s the details of protagonist Aibileen Clark’s son’s death or the beating a young black man suffers for accidentally using the wrong bathroom that leaves him blinded. It was a movie that allowed white viewers to escape any complicity with racism, and then made sure they didn’t have to confront the most revolting consequences of racism either. Hopefully, this movie will honor Oscar Grant by making neither of those mistakes.