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?


‘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.

‘The Words’ tell a captivating story

The story behind “The Words” is not new. Earlier this month, Jade Bonacolta, a Columbia University student and the Columbia Spectator’s former associate arts and entertainment editor, plagiarized Robin Pogrebin’s New York Times article. Earlier this summer, Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria was caught plagiarizing Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article in his column on gun control. Although adopting another writer’s work as one’s own isn’t new, directors and screenwriters Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal film adds an original spin to an unoriginal concept.

The film begins as author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading his fiction novel, “The Words,” on an author visit in a New York university. He is telling the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a young man who moved into a New York City apartment with his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana), in hopes of becoming a writer. When Rory and Dora get married, the couple spends their honeymoon in Paris, where Rory inherits a briefcase containing a finished script. Spurred by his ambition to publish his first novel, Rory makes a Faustian deal with himself — marketing the script as his own, and becoming a bestselling author.

Although the plot may seem trite and cliché at first, the movie becomes more interesting with the appearance of Jeremy Irons, who plays the old man who wrote the original script. Irons provides some of the most captivating scenes in the film, such as when he confronts Cooper about his book with an excellent mix of sarcasm and bitterness. Irons’ narration of his past life also comes at a pivotal point of the film, holding the audience’s interest, just when the film starts to become boring and chalk full of clichés.

Ben Barnes, who plays Irons’ younger self, also gives an excellent performance. Not only does the English actor give a solid American accent, but Barnes also brings sincerity to the writer role that Cooper seems to lack. For example, in the scenes where Barnes is writing his novel, he is seen typing furiously into his typewriter, or reading his script, or scratching things out. Meanwhile, parallel scenes when Cooper is staring blankly at his laptop screen feel flat.

Although Cooper did a decent job in his role, he sometimes comes across as more of a petulant child rather than a writer. For example, in one scene, he abandons his writing in favor of hooking up with his wife. In another scene, he begs his father for money. Cooper is mostly believable as a writer who would plagiarize, but Barnes’ performance and story resonates more with the viewer.

“The Words” is very artistic, from Klugman and Sternthal’s multi-layered script to Marcelo Zarvos’ music, which provides a beautiful and haunting atmospheric background to most of the movie. The imagery, including the picturesque cobblestone sidewalks in Paris and the lush green parks in New York City’s Central Park, is also vibrant and visually stunning.

Like a good novel, “The Words” transports the viewer on a journey through time. The pages of this book jump to life, and Klugman and Sternthal are wonderful storytellers who weave together a charming and romantic drama.

“The Words” is directed and written by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.

To see this post published in The Ithacan, click here.

Mending Wall: The Wall In Palestine

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 
what I was walling in or walling out.”

— from Mending Wall by Robert Frost

“Why doesn’t the media print about the inhuman treatment in Israel and Palestine? They have surrounded the cities and cut off supplies. Over a million and a half Palestinians have died. If the inhumane treatment is disgusting, why doesn’t America do something about it? It’s disgusting what’s going on in Palestine.”

— from The Tonawanda News sound off column

Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors,” in his 1914 poem Mending Wall, but decades later, does it really?

Surely, the 400-mile wall separating Israel and the Palestinian West Bank didn’t foster a greater friendship. And, as Frost wrote, if there is “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” surely it’s the Palestinians that are cut off from their jobs, schools and land.

In his book A Wall in Palestine, French journalist Rene Backmann explores this issue. As Backmann describes, “the Israelis are cloistered in a kind of moral superiority, living in a ‘walled’ society in which the aspirations of other peoples are cropped out of view, and in which they can live in peaceful denial of their role as oppressors.”

Essentially, Israel is like that bully stealing everyone else’s toys and lunch money during recess — a sentiment that two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof agrees with to some extent.

“Israel goes out of it’s way to display it’s ugliest side to the world by tearing down Palestinian homes or allowing rapacious settlers to steal Palestinian land,” Kristof wrote in a July 7 New York Times column titled In Israel, the Noble vs. The Ugly.

Yet not all Israelis are bad. Kristof goes on to describe the Rabbis for Human Rights, a group of Israeli rabbis who are opposed to the Palestinian oppression.

And if the wall is so bad, why build the wall in the first place?

Well, if rights and freedom are so precious, how was the U.S. Patriot Act ever passed?

Perhaps both the wall and the act are effective protection against the threat of terrorism, but for Palestinians, life with the wall will never be the same as life without the wall.

“For the people here, the land is as essential as water is to fish” Backmann quotes Qaffin’s mayor Taisir Harashi. “If you take a fish out of water, it dies. If you deprive a Palestinian of his land…”

The damage is unimaginable. Just like how BP and the Gulf oil spill ruined the livelihood of many sailors and those living on the Gulf Coast, those from Palestine who worked in Israel have no way of going to work because of the wall. Once prosperous communities like Qaffin now have 80 percent unemployment. Yet this doesn’t even begin to explain the total social and economic impact the wall caused. After all, is the price of safety worth crippling the whole livelihood of another group of people?

The Most Dangerous Game

A lighthouse shines in the distance against the velvet-black sky—against the darkened theatre of Cinemapolis at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 25, 2009. The lighthouse’s beacon beckoned ships and sea creatures alike near a darkened cove, lined with rocks and fishermen’s spears. It beckoned viewers to a closer look at the award-winning FLEFF[1]-sponsored documentary The Cove.

The cove is a perfect trap for Richard Connell’s character General Zaroff to set up “the most dangerous game”—to set up for a true man-hunting game of cat-and-mouse, hunter-and-hunted, and predator-and-prey.

The cove is also where Taiji government in Japan set up a secret dolphin slaughterhouse. “I do want to say, we tried to do the story legally,” the narrator began the documentary, driving a vehicle with a hospital mask hiding his face, while trying to avoid the police. Of course, the town of Taiji—with “We love dolphins!” posters hung around every corner—is a “little town with a really big secret.”

One might find it curious that there are certain places that one is not allowed to fish or hold cameras. These places are the coves of Taiji, where big red “X’s” mark the forbidden territory. But for some, “X” always stood for buried treasure, and a big secret was sure buried in Taiji and other places like Taiji. The governments knew this, of course, so they were employing in this cat-and-mouse game, tailgating the man with a facemask. All the man needed was a camera. With some leaked footage, the rest of the word to find out.


Ric O'Barry with Cathy the dolphin.

Perhaps this story started with Flipper, a popular television series in the mid-1960s. With care-free catchy lyrics such as “They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning, no one can see is faster than he…” many became fascinated with dolphins—the playful creatures. “If it weren’t for Flipper, we wouldn’t even care about dolphins,” someone commented about the public’s spotlight.

And at the height of the dolphin era, no one was more popular than the dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. He built up the dolphin industry, spending many hours in the water, living in the television sets of countless homes. However, after “Flipper,” a dolphin by the name of Cathy, consciously stopped breathing, committing suicide in the young dolphin trainer’s arms, O’Barry spent the rest of his years trying to tear down the dolphin industry.

“I never planned on being an activist,” said O’Barry. “I spent years building the dolphin industry and spent last 35 years tearing it down.”

Save a Whale, Ride a Dolphin: Smile for Free Willy

“Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking,” began the melancholy song ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin. ‘Smile’ was Michael Jackson’s favorite song. Perhaps the late King of Pop was on to something. In 1993, Jackson wrote the song ‘Will You Be There’ for the motion picture Free Willy, a movie about a boy who tries to save a whale from being killed from captivity.

The boy—Jesse—was just trying to do what Ric O’Barry has been doing since Cathy died: free Willy.

“The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they are always happy,” said O’Barry. “You realize after a while that they don’t really belong in captivity.”

Yet by trapping bottle-nosed dolphins in stadiums packed with people, clapping and shouting, one is killing them with a wall of sound. Dolphins have incredible sensitive hearing and sonar; they are able to see with sound. To see tourists day after day with their loud thunderous clapping and cheering as they leap through the air, the dolphins are slowly dying.

About 23,000 dolphins and porpoises die each year in coves like Taiji, however, most deceased dolphins are not show dolphins. While dolphins in Taiji do get sold to water parks to perform, most dolphins in the Taiji coves are slaughtered in the salty blood red waters. Most of the dolphin meat doesn’t even get eaten.

Dolphins have been known to help humans—such as the stray surfer who leans to close to a shark; yet humans kill dolphins.

As Charlie Chaplin sang, “Smile, though your heart is aching…”

The Biggest Public Health Problem

“If we lose access to sea creatures, it may become the biggest public health problem,” they said, especially in an island such as Japan, where fish becomes 70 percent of protein for people. Yet with the current rate of fishing, there will be no fish left.

Besides the rate of killing of fish to extinction, there is another problem lurking beneath the cold depths of the Taiji cove. Dolphin meat is laced with mercury, and over time a buildup of mercury can make one lose one’s hearing, sight and mind. It can result to the Minamata disease: a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poison, causing deformity in infants and symptoms ranging from ataxia, numbness, general muscle weakness to insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. Therefore, dolphin meat isn’t a very popular food item for Japanese citizens. Still, in a tough economy, one finds it hard to deny free food.

With an abundance of dolphin meat, they start giving away free dolphin meat in kid lunchboxes. Dolphin meat in Taiji may be found in grocery stores, mislabeled as whale meat. The best part is that the government knows what is going on, but citizens wouldn’t know the difference.

Yet the problem of food poisoning isn’t limited to Japan, and the coves in Taiji aren’t the only slaughterhouses of dolphins. As Ithaca College Journalism Professor Todd Schack said, “We live in a giant glass house and we can’t blame Japan when they can turn around and blame us.” As unlikely as it may seem, food poisoning persists even in the good U.S. of A.

A recent New York Times[2] article reported that a 22-year-old dance teacher became paralyzed after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli. Although selling tainted meat is banned, tens of thousands of people become sick by the E. Coli virus, which symptoms ranging from aches, cramps, diarrhea and seizures to a coma and paralyzation. E.coli contamination this summer led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states. Ground beef—or hamburger meat—is usually made from a variety of sources, and not all the processed meat is tested for E. coli.

As Ric O’Barry said, “If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.”

[1] FLEFF is an acronym for Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.