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Elaine Dutka Headshot

"Fruitvale" and Trayvon: Exposing the Racial Divide

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"Fruitvale Station," the feature debut of LA filmmaker Ryan Coogler, bolted into the marketplace, taking in more per screen in its opening weekend than last year's highly-touted "Beasts of the Southern Wild." The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, it has excellent "buzz". And the Trayvon Martin verdict, issued the day after its release, should, certainly, fuel the turnout.

The film is based on the real-life tale of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young African-American wrongfully killed by a white Oakland California transit policeman on New Year's Day 2009. "It could have been me," said Coogler, a Bay Area native who determined to film the story. The action is, essentially, a 24-hour flashback from actual footage of a crime in which justice was far from served. Claiming he mistook his gun for a laser, the rookie cop was convicted of "homicide" but freed after 11 months.

George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch volunteer" in the gated community of Sanford, Fla., had an even easier time. Declared "not guilty" of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he had the GPS removed from his body, his gun promptly returned. Trayvon supporters took to the streets after the court's decision on Saturday.

"Trials aren't morality plays," a top defense attorney told the New York Times. The jury's hands were tied. Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law justified the finding of "self-defense" if Zimmerman thought his well-being was threatened. The standard for guilt has changed--tripling the rate of justifable homicide since the law's passage in 2005. Innocence, right and wrong, are irrelevant, off the playing field.

Whatever the prosecution missteps, it was an uphill battle, from the start. Only two people knew the full story. One wasn't there to testify and the other, wisely, refused. While the Department of Justice is considering a civil rights suit, bias is hard to prove. When it comes to issues of race, America resides in the "51st state--"the state of denial", a civil rights leader once observed.

Zimmerman is suing NBC News for its edit of the 911 tape. He didn't bring up Martin's ethnicity on his own, he argues---just responded to a question. Referring to "these (expletives)" who "always get away," however, reflects a racist mindset. That he says he'd do nothing different is a key to his agenda.

Prosecutors downplayed "race" with the six-person jury--not one of whom was black. One juror had termed the pro-Trayvon protests "riots" and still was allowed to serve. Quite a contrast with the O.J. Simpson trial in which a mostly black jury disregarded weaknesses in the defense to remedy injustices of the past. Martin, unlike the football legend, got no benefit of the doubt. The empathy of "motherhood" took a back seat to fear of "The Other" on the all-female panel.

Jurors dismissed the testimony of key witness Rachel Jeantel because of poor speech and "attitude." No matter that Trayvon had been talking to her on his cell phone, describing how he was stalked.

"Weed don't make him go crazy--it just make him hungry," she noted on CNN, recalling the times they'd smoked. "If Trayvon was white and wore a hoodie, this would never have happened. It happened around 7:00 at night, That's when people walk their dogs."

The Fruitvale tale is "universal" not "racial," maintains Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), an executive producer of the film who portrays the mother of Grant. Still, it speaks particularly loud to blacks. Rarely painted by one of their own, they chuckled, knowingly, at mention of a "fake-ass [birthday] card with white people on it" and talk of a team with a black coach "who even has a black wife." Characters are multi-layered, stereotypes pushed aside. While Grant dabbles in drugs and infidelity, he's not defined by those mistakes. Jordan ("the Wire") was told to represent what Grant "stood for"-- not to imitate him. Walking the right line between filmmaking and reality was the goal, says Coogler. So was depicting the danger of "assumptions."

Fifty years after the March on Washington, five years after our first African-American President, there's a false sense of security about race. The Supreme Court just eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. More than half the states have passed "stand your ground" statutes. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "stop and frisk" policy is rampant on NYC streets. Minorities get the short end of the stick on issues ranging from gun control, to immigration and prison reform. Drug laws are the new Jim Crow. Racial profiling is ingrained in our system--not just the domain of the police.

Elaine Dutka is a contributing reporter at NPR's KUSC, a former West Coast Show Business Correspondent for Time Magazine and staff writer for The Los Angeles Times.