Here is a Black film that shows the deadly consequences of the racial empathy gap in real life: the 2009 senseless murder of unarmed African-American Oscar Grant by a White transit officer early on New Year’s Day in Oakland California. Grant’s murder at the hands of police authorities is an event that happens so often to Black males in this country and elsewhere that it almost appears trivial in the ebb and flow of our globally interconnected culture.
But where Whites who go to see this film and are both emotionally affected and outraged, we have to remember that the original article WHY WHITE PEOPLE DON’T LIKE BLACK MOVIES stated that,” The effects of such a Racial Empathy Gap may not negatively influence all Whites when they are viewing a Black film…” Therefore, the fact that some Whites are seeing FRUITVALE STATION as well as THE BUTLER does not discredit the thesis of the article that,” A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film.”
Yet the bitter irony here is that some Whites who are seeing FRUITVALE STATION and are emotionally affected could possibly be affected by the circumstances represented in the film in a qualitatively different manner than those Blacks who are seeing the film. That is to say, some Whites are emotionally affected by the wrong-doing of the White police officer and NOT the death of the Black male represented in the film. Oscar Grant’s death is the collateral consequence of a breach of the boundaries of White authority and thus the circumstance can still be looked at through the lens of White privilege and power and not through the lens of racial injustice and White controlled oppression and indifference.
These Whites could be angry that the police officer committed such a heinous and blatant act of disregard for a human life, which subsequently opened the door to charges of racism to which the authorities were so quick to vehemently deny. It could be that many Whites are seeing the film FRUITVALE STATION as a means of denying the existence of racism by looking at the circumstances represented as a tragic accident while simultaneously convincing themselves that they are racially tolerant enough see this circumstance beyond the lens of race. Such an assertion begs the questions: Does FRUITVALE STATION encourage the delusion of racial tolerance and blunt the critique of racial injustice in those Whites who are brave enough to see it? If so, then is the film actually encouraging racial intolerance instead of increasing the sensitivity of its viewers toward racial injustice?
Though there may be Whites who have shed tears during the screening of FRUITVALE STATION some of these Whites may not have “introjected” or fully internalized the pain of being shot while Black (or having been lynched while Black , or kidnapped while Black, or enslaved while Black, or falsely accused and imprisoned while Black…). Indeed, some Whites are angry and emotionally affected by the circumstance but not by the subject whose Black body is dead.
By contrast, when many Blacks watch the film the pain of Oscar Grant’s senseless death is both palpable, certain, and has an unparalleled urgency because the very color of their skin inherently means that any one of them could be the next potential victim of such real violence, discrimination and injustice by Whites in authority. We should return to the words of film scholar Anna Everett that were quoted in the original article when considering the exclusion of Blacks from what was defined as White films,” Whites don’t take notice when there are no minorities or Blacks in a film, but Blacks do. “Even if Whites recognize the exclusion it will have different meanings for them.”
Here we should consider that there may be different meanings to the tears Whites are shedding during FRUITVALE STATION and the tears Blacks are shedding every day during the many similar senseless circumstances of murder of Black males by Whites and other ethnicities in positions of authority or who harbor delusions of authority because they possess a firearm.
What is qualitatively different when some Whites cry during the screenings of FRUITVALE STATION as opposed to when many Blacks cry is that some Whites may be crying at the senselessness of the particular circumstances but not at the system that is poised against Blacks and perpetuates these reoccurring particular circumstances of reckless racial indifference, otherwise known as racism, which cuts short the lives of Black males without any remorse, recrimination or justice for the act of wrongdoing.
All of this has not been said to detract or besmirch the character of those Whites who have seen FRUITVALE STATION and were genuinely emotionally affected and outraged by the Oscar Grant’s murder, but the fact remains that it has become far too easy for the majority of many Whites to write off these reoccurring incidents of murder of a Black male at the hands of White authority (and those ethnicities who feign White authority) as tragic accidents rather than seeing these incidents as symptoms of systemic racism incited by reckless racial indifference, prejudicial stereotypes and a lack of racial empathy. One wonders if the visible expansion of Blacks within the upper and middle classes made racism more or less difficult a lens through which to see acts of racism and racial bias?
Is the price of the success of a few costing the lives of many others?
I suspect that many potential White commentators knew that by using FRUITVALE STATION as a counter-argument against the notion that Whites don’t like Black films would have been too problematic and therefore they either curtailed their responses to films from the Early Nineties (E.g. BOYZ N THE HOOD, etc), comedies from the Nineties (e.g. FRIDAY) or used confirmation bias to make the ignorant sweeping generalization that all Black films, as defined in the original article, are bad and inferior to White (mainstream) cinema.
But then it is so difficult and painfully ironic to use a film about the murder of a Black man by a White man as evidence that Whites like Black movies; it is so painfully ironic isn’t it? And yet it is so painfully obvious that some Whites like only a certain type of Black film and cannot see a Black film as a legitimate contribution to the art form of cinema. Many Whites only see a Black film as a representation of a particular circumstance that is not addressed to them and has nothing to say about the world they inhabit; such is the blinding power of White privilege and ignorance.
(1) This postscript was originally written as a response to commentator DLYNN who posted on September 19th 2013 at 10:30pm,” The last two "Black films" that I saw at the cinemas were Fruitvale Station and The Butler. The audience was predominantly white, and more than a few were in tears at the end of Fruitvale Station. #empathy” This was first and only presumed White commentator to mention having seen FRUITVALE STATION as a rebuttal or counter-argument to the original article after three months and much discussion.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.