Next Stop… ‘Fruitvale Station’: a discussion on race and equality 50 years since MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

Fifty years ago on the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. announced his dream to the world: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Fifty years later, that world is still a dream.

According to an August Pew Research poll, 49 percent of Americans say “a lot more” needs to be done toward racial equality.

The study shows that in 2010, black men were incarcerated six times as often as white men and in 2011, median white households made roughly $27,000 more than black ones. Blacks are three times as likely to be living in poverty. And the July unemployment rate for blacks (12.6 percent) is double of that for whites (6.6 percent).

Compared to data collected from a sample of children born more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into legislation, these revelations aren’t surprising. After all, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy reform group, one in 10 black males in their 30s are in prison.

Meanwhile, sociologist Dr. Becky Pettit’s study, “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” of high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 shows that:

  • 68 percent of blacks, compared with 28 percent of whites, had been incarcerated at some point by 2009.
  • In 2009, 37 percent of blacks, compared with 12 percent of whites, were imprisoned.
  • More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs.
  • Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service.
  • Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.
  • And by the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent.

This is the world we see — one where Florida’s “stand your ground” laws protected a light-skinned Hispanic  from charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter after he shot a black teen in early 2012 and didn’t protect a black woman who felt like she was in physical danger from her abusive husband.

And it’s the one we see in “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s empathetic debut feature-length film based on the death of Oscar Grant III, a black 22-year-old shot by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer.

Through Coogler’s script and direction and Rachel Morrison’s camera lens, we follow Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) over the course of 24 hours, watching his “pursuit of happyness.”

But unlike Chris Gardner‘s story (about a hardworking and homeless entrepreneur/stockbroker), “Fruitvale Station” is without its Hollywood flourishes. While Oscar may strive to provide for his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter (Ariana Neal), he spent time behind the walls of the San Francisco Penitentiary. Instead of selling expensive medical equipment like Gardner did, Oscar dealt marijuana.

“Do you want me to sell dope?” Oscar, who worked at a local food market, asked his former boss after he refused to rehire him.

Certainly this illustrates the cyclical nature of one’s socioeconomic status. Unable to find a socially acceptable minimum wage job, Oscar resorts to selling drugs — which could put him back behind prison bars. Is this really the “pursuit of happiness?”

How do you answer your daughter when she asks you, “Why do you love taking your vacations more than you love being with me?”

As uncomfortable as this reality is, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t shy away from another self-evident truth: we’re still judged by the color of our skin.

We see this when a white woman looks away nervously when a black man in jeans and a hoodie approaches her in the supermarket. We see this when police officers pull aside unarmed black men from a BART train, shooting and killing one of them.

You can’t help but think: is this what Trayvon Martin felt like when he was followed by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012?

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told police. “These assholes, they always get away.” Trayvon, a black teen wearing jeans and a dark hoodie, made him uncomfortable, he said.

Even President Obama isn’t a stranger to this racial profiling: “There are very few African American men in this country who’ve never had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking in an elevator and having a woman clutch her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often,” he said, admitting that some of these incidents occurred to him.

While Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who shot Oscar, was convicted for involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced for two years in prison, and the Trayvon Martin case renewed momentum toward the End Racial Profiling Act, that’s not enough.

It’s not enough when new North Carolina voting laws requiring photo identification, making it harder for blacks to vote. It’s not enough when state laws require a jury to acquit a man who shot and killed someone. It’s not enough until every man is not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

That’s the world Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of 50 years ago. And sadly, those words are as relevant today as they were on Aug. 28, 1963.

Echoing the words of Dr. King, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Words to remember, but also words worth fighting for — that self-evident and elusive truth: equality. Will dreams ever come true?


Summer drive-ins and why they still matter

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

It was called the Nightly Double because it cost 25 cents for a double feature. They played two movies every night, and four on the weekends. That’s where Ponyboy Curtis and his gang of greasers would drink and pick up girls in S.E. Hinton’s 1967 coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders. And that’s where I first read about drive-ins.

Growing up in the 1990s, my generation found drive-ins as relics from another era, seen in books or films. Danny Zuko (John Travolta) sings about Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John) at a drive-in in the 1978 musical movie, Grease. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) drive the DeLorean directly into a drive-in theatre screen to travel from 1955 to 1885 in Back to the Future 3. Both those movies were released before I was born, and the spotlight on drive-ins seems as prehistoric as the films featuring them.

Back in the day, Whiz Auto Products Company sales manager Richard Hollingshead Jr. came up with the novelty for drive-ins — a place where the family can watch movies in the comfort of their car — and in doing so, he changed the movie-going experience. In the 1930s, children went to matinees during the day and adults attended film screenings at night. The problem with this model was that this made the film-going experience a hassle for families; in order to go to a film, Mom and Dad would have to dress up and hire a babysitter.

As Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association told Smithsonian magazine, “His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theatre seats. So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.”

Since Hollingshead Jr. aimed a 1928 Kodak film projector at a white bed sheet hung between two trees in his Riverton, N.J., backyard, drive-ins have grown.

The first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, N.J. Hollingshead Jr. charged 25 cents per person to watch the British comedy Wives Beware. The next year, three drive-in theatres opened up in Pennsylvania, Texas and California. By 1958, the height of the drive-in era, more than 4,000 drive-ins thrived across the United States.

Unfortunately, drive-ins have been dwindling year by year. Today, only 357 drive-in theatres exist throughout Puerto Rico and the 50 states. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming do not even have one drive-in.

Since the 1970s, drive-ins were replaced by housing complexes and shopping malls. The demise of drive-ins is partly due to costs to maintain.

“It’s a fun business, but it’s very difficult, because you have a six-month business and 12 months of expenses,” Steve Valentine, the former owner of the Buffalo Drive-In, told The New York Times. The Buffalo Drive-In closed in 2007.

Meanwhile, the comfort of watching movies in cars is replaced by the comfort of watching films at home. After all, why should you catch a double feature at a drive-in when you can watch unlimited movies and TV on Netflix for $7.99 a month — relatively the same price as a double feature?

If money were the only deciding factor, Netflix, Hulu and other online streaming sites would be the better deal, but drive-in theatres offer an irreplaceable social experience.

Just last summer, I was sitting in the backseat of my friend’s parked and fogged up Toyota Camry. We were catching the premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman at the Transit Drive-In when an unexpected movie montage started to play. It started with clips and quotes from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and ended with the words, “Rachel, will you marry me?”

Now would that proposal been the same on a tiny laptop screen in the comfort of one’s home? Well, for one, it would be missing the honking cars and the collective cheers that followed. Rachel’s proposal wouldn’t have had the same audience (even if most of them were sitting in fogged up cars with the windshield wipers on).

Watching a film at a drive-in theatre is like going to a tailgate without the alcohol. The shared amenities include food, friends and a parking lot full of entertainment. Perhaps watching a DVD on a flat screen TV in your home or a movie in one of AMC’s plushy new recliners would be more comfortable than sitting outside under a canopy of summer mosquitoes, but drive-in theatres are as appealing as going to an outdoor game.

While the movies are the reason you’re out here, it doesn’t matter what happens on that screen (I’ve sat through some pretty bad double features at drive-ins). What matters are the kan jam games, the miniature golf — the friends and family who surround you and the time you spend with them.

Hollingshead Jr. may have started drive-in theatres to foster family-friendly movie-viewing experiences, but that’s not what keeps them going. Unlike movie theatres, you never go to drive-ins alone. The novelty rests in how many people you can pile in your van, how many drinks and snacks you can fit in your coolers and the half-circle of folding chairs taking up two full parking spaces. They’re about dressing up in your cloaks and wands for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and trading that in for your masks and capes for the premiere of the latest summer superhero blockbuster. And let’s not forget the best part; summer’s only getting started…

Author’s Note: I wrote this at the beginning of summer, but didn’t get around to posting it until now…

‘Orange is the New Black’: addictive women’s prison drama for the middle class

“You’re a first-time offender with a short sentence, and you’re white,” says Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Feiner), the warden in “Orange is the New Black.”

She’s talking about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schiling), a white, middle-class, college-educated, recently engaged 30-something-year-old — which is also the prescribed audience binge-watching the new 13-episode Netflix original television drama.

But while Piper may be an anomaly in prison, she’s someone viewers can relate to — the type of person who watches “Mad Men,” listens to NPR’s “This American Life,” reads “The New York Times,” and  tries the Master Cleanse, a 10-day lemonade and pepper diet designed to flush out your system.

That’s the lens creator Jenji Kohan give us to view her fascinating and addictive prison drama, “Orange is the New Black.”

Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who’s engaged to her journalist boyfriend Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). Chapman lands in Litchfield Correctional Facilities for 15 months after her connection in her ex’s drug operation becomes revealed almost a decade later.

Her ex happens to be Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, who played Donna from “That ’70s Show”), a lesbian heroin dealer who Chapman had a relationship with during her experimental post-college phase. And Alex Vause happens to be sentenced to the same female prison Chapman’s stuck at for the next 15 months.

For the liberal, college-educated middle-class audience following Piper’s journey, watching “Orange is the New Black” is like reading Nellie Bly’s New York World exposé, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The appeal is that we’re voyeurs to the sensationalism: getting starved for insulting the chef’s food, getting feet fungus from showers, being made someone’s prison wife and almost being killed. Oh, the horror!

Only Kohan’s pilot 13-episode season chronicles more than 10 days. It takes us through weeks and months, Thanksgivings and Christmases, births and deaths. All the while, time stays still. A day in solitary confinement can last nine months to a year. The lights never turn off; there’s no way of recording the passage of time.

No human contact or touch can make anyone crazy.

And if you’re crazy enough, you’re sent to the psych ward — where they strap you down and administer sedatives until you lose whatever sanity you may have left. No one get’s out of the psych ward.

Prison, Kohan’s drama narrates, is about survival. And surviving in Litchfield is like surviving “Girl World” and the high school drama and pettiness in “Mean Girls.”

And in “Girl World,” there are rules: everyone uses last names; you clean everything with maxi pads; you don’t eat the pudding; and the second you’re perceived as weak, you already are.

Chlamydia talks are replaced by suicide watches. The lessons are the same though: don’t do it.

Then there are cliques — your whites, blacks, Hispanics, Golden Girls and others: Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian honcho of the kitchen; Miss. Claudette (Michelle Hurst), who’s rumored to have murdered people and to have run a sex trade; Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a religious fanatic who thinks she’s performing the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; and “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), who’s the only one to survive the psych ward and come back.

An eccentric, excitable and memorable ensemble cast of characters walks the halls of Litchfield. And through a series of flashbacks, Kohan has fleshed out their stories.

Women can be cruel, but there’s no Nurse Ratched in “Orange is the New Black,” which at times, resembles Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” more than Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest.” As intimidating as these bands of inmates are, the oppressive jailors are still a bunch of incompetent, racist and misogynistic pigs.

Counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) may act like a sweet old grandpa with a Russian mail-order bride, but he’s got a vendetta against gays. Meanwhile, Officer Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) perpetuates drug trafficking in prison, bartering pills for blowjobs while condoning rape.

Kohan makes sure you remember that humans live behind these bars. They, too, want love and laughter, chasing after parole like that elusive great white whale. And while life’s a cruel mistress, shuffling you from cell to cell, assignment to assignment, you can’t help but hope. One day, you’ll settle your debts. You’ll travel the globe. You’ll fly across that barb-wired fence. You’ll get out of prison. And somehow, tomorrow will be better. Now if you can only get through today… and the next 15 months.