Commentary: From Fruitvale Station to Retreat View Circle

Oscar Grant’s humanity shined through in the movie about his last day on earth. Sadly, the same isn’t happening for Trayvon at the Zimmerman trial.

Posted: 07/12/2013 08:52 AM EDT
Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Keith Boykin

I think I picked the wrong day to see Fruitvale Station. I saw the film at a press screening Tuesday afternoon after spending most of the day covering the George Zimmerman trial.

After weeks of watching Zimmerman's defense team impugn the character of 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin, I expected the story of the shooting death of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant would make me mad. I didn't expect it would make me cry.

In 90 minutes on the screen, Fruitvale Station (which opens today) successfully did what the prosecution in the Zimmerman trial has not been able to do as effectively – it humanized the victim. We got to see Oscar Grant's beautiful relationship with his young daughter and got to meet his girlfriend, his sister, his mother and his family. We saw that he had lost his job recently and lied about it. We learned that he had served time in jail. And we saw that Grant could be a bit of a hothead from time to time.

But through all his imperfections, we realized Oscar Grant was a human being with character flaws and strengths just like everyone else. That made him relatable.

In contrast, I've watched three weeks of the Zimmerman trial and it seems Trayvon Martin's humanity has been stripped from the courtroom. The state is unable to introduce evidence about his good character – that he wanted to be an astronaut, for example – out of fear that the defense will introduce evidence of his alleged bad character –  text messages suggesting he might have had fights before.

So instead, because of the rules of evidence, we've watched the defense portray George Zimmerman as a harmless, portly, saintly neighbor who only wanted to protect his community from the threat of crime. Think of him as Santa Claus with a gun.

At the same time, they've portrayed Trayvon Martin as a menacing, athletic young man capable of beating the innocent neighborhood watch leader to a pulp with his bare hands. Think of him as the Incredible Hulk in blackface.

Neither the image of Zimmerman or Trayvon is accurate, any more than the bucolic image of innocence evoked from the peaceful sounding words Fruitvale Station and Retreat View Circle, where Trayvon was shot and killed. But despite my own legal background, I'm not sure it serves the interest of justice to conduct a trial in a way that deprives the jurors of an opportunity to understand this victim.   

On the one hand, it's critically important for the jury to determine Zimmerman's guilt or innocence based only on the relevant issues of the incident that led to Trayvon’s death. But on the other hand, it's also important in any criminal proceeding, especially one  involving murder, that the victim not be put on trial.

Yet in a society where Black lives are all too often marginalized and young Black men are portrayed in the media more often (and more inaccurately) as predators than as victims,  I can't help feeling there's more about Trayvon Martin's life story that the jurors still need to know.

Rachel Jeantel couldn't tell the jury that Trayvon was one of the few people in the world who didn't make fun of her because of her weight, her hair or her style of dress. Maybe he did fight from time to time, but he was a real teenager, with all the troubles and baggage that goes along with that. And he was also a kid with dreams and goals and aspirations for his still young life.

Perhaps the six women on the Zimmerman jury will be able to find Trayvon’s humanity as they deliberate the verdict, even though none of them can fully understand the life experience of a Black teenage boy. Or maybe they still don't know who that kid is.

What I do know is that a powerfully told story can make a difference. When I saw Fruitvale Station, the mostly white audience of hardened movie reviewers and jaded journalists didn't seem prepared for the story that followed as they took their seats at the press screening. When the film ended, however, after watching Oscar Grant's life story, I couldn't face the screen without crying uncontrollably. I was so heartbroken that, for the first time in my life, I couldn't even sit through the movie credits.

And it wasn't just me. While I hurried toward the exit, I heard the familiar crying and sniffling of grief and sorrow. The other film reviewers had seen through Oscar Grant's problems and related to his humanity. And as I left the theater, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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