(The Root) — "I just don't think I'm ready," explained a friend as we discussed possible plans to go see Fruitvale Station, the critically acclaimed film that depicts the final 24 hours of 22-year-old Oscar Grant's life. On New Year's Day 2009, the unarmed and handcuffed Grant was shot and killed by a transit-police officer in Oakland, Calif. Another young black man's life misinterpreted and interrupted.
The film premiered in a limited release July 12, just one day before the not-guilty verdict was handed down in the George Zimmerman trial in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. For more than a few of the people with whom I spoke, watching Fruitvale Station would be like throwing all the salt into a freshly deep wound. One friend described herself as feeling "real delicate."
So far the film, which opened nationwide July 26, has made $7,339,206 at the box office, according to the industry website Boxofficemojo.com. For an independent film, those numbers are more than good. Forbes magazine described the film's gross as "flourishing" and said that "it no longer becomes a question of 'Will it pass $5 million?' but rather 'Will it pass $15 million and beyond?' "
Despite the film's obvious success, for some there's still another lingering question — Are you going? — that is no longer a simple matter of supporting great black cinema or honoring Grant's memory. It's a personal struggle, a test of will to see how much one can take.
"My emotions are still running high," said my good friend Lakia, a passionate educator of boys Trayvon's age, who lives in the Bronx, N.Y. "I know how the story ends, and at this moment I don't want to continue to relive the hurt and shock all over again."
Kimberley McLeod, a writer and LGBTQ advocate, said the verdict in Zimmerman's trial "broke her."
"I'm numb at the surface, but my emotions are still raw right underneath," said McLeod. "I thought about making myself see the film so that I could make myself feel something — outrage, anger, despair. But after revisiting some old footage of Oscar Grant, I just can't bring myself to see the film. At least not yet."
Jamilah Lemieux, Ebony.com's news and lifestyle editor, said she has not seen it.
"Working on coverage of the killing of Trayvon Martin has left me emotionally overwhelmed," said Lemieux. "I feel I owe it to Oscar, to Trayvon, to Rekia [Boyd] and others to see this film and to make sure these stories are told. But I'm having a hard time managing my heartbreak right now."
The struggle between grief and the desire to support a powerful film has left more than a few people conflicted. One friend, a mother of two, said she couldn't put herself through the wringer again but that the film could still be a powerful tool for those who haven't gotten the message: Black boys are people, too.
Another friend told me she planned to purchase a ticket for Fruitvale and hand it to someone who needed to see it.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the tiny indie theater in which I sat was as quiet as one would expect a small indie theater to be at 2 p.m. on a hump day. A spray of people sat mostly in the back three rows, eschewing movie-theater etiquette and squeezing in close.
The beginning of the film replays actual footage from bystanders' cellphones, a million handheld CCTVs documenting Grant's murder. You can hear people in the background shouting, "No" and "Why" and "Come on," as Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) is abused by cops while seemingly trying to keep the peace. Then there's a loud pop. And the world shifts.
I'm not ashamed to admit I "watched" that entire scene with my eyes closed. Like everyone else huddling in their seats, I knew what was coming, and I still wasn't prepared to actually see it. There aren't enough armrests in the world to brace yourself for that.
Gratefully, the bulk of the film is dedicated to Grant's life, not his death. Grant is expertly depicted as a real person — not a martyr or an icon or an iron-on image for all your political T-shirt needs. He was a study in contrasts. At once sweet, helpful and compassionate, but in the blink of eye he could be cold, distant and violent.
He'd been to prison. He'd sold drugs. He'd cheated on his girlfriend. He also snuck his daughter an extra snack before day care, turned down the hip-hop music in his car to wish his mother a happy birthday and gave his girlfriend the hoodie off his back when she got cold. He was a person. That fact makes the final scene everyone knows is coming all the more gut-punching.
On the way out, I met two older black men dressed in oversized shirts and matching striped polos, Luther and Terry, both in their late 40s. Terry had been balling throughout the last 30 minutes of the film.
"That was heartbreaking," Terry told me, his eyes still puffy.
"I was nervous coming to see this. It's like a mirror to Trayvon. But if people see this, it will probably fuel their anger. It was so unfair. They can just do anything to us," added Luther, wide-eyed.
"I mean, damn. That was deep, man," said Terry, who then turned to one of the ticket takers and added, "That movie will piss a brother off."
It will piss a sister off, too, but I'm still glad I was there. I don't know if it was to bear witness or jump-start the tears that wouldn't come when George Zimmerman was declared not guilty by a jury of none of Trayvon's peers. Either way, I left that theater feeling.