By Ann Hornaday
As a drama about the needless death of a young, unarmed black man, the shattering new movie “Fruitvale Station” has found particular resonance with audiences in the past few weeks. The film stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, who was shot by a white Oakland, Calif., transit police officer in 2009. But the scene from the film that has most haunted me does not address racial profiling or any of the events directly related to the shooting.
It’s New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. On a crowded street, while waiting for his date to go to the bathroom, Oscar strikes up a conversation with a white man around his age, who, like Oscar, has committed a crime. Unlike Oscar, he has clearly rebounded. After they chat about the women in their lives, the stranger confesses that he was so broke when he married his wife that he had to steal her ring. He issues a warning about going down the same road, then cheerfully tells Oscar that he now owns a business and gives him his card.
That brief but eloquent scene deftly illustrates the subtleties of white privilege — a reality too seldom portrayed in film and too often ignored by its beneficiaries in life.
When Hollywood tackles race directly, it’s usually by way of uplifting allegories like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Crash” and “The Help,” each of which, in its own way, perpetuates the consoling idea that eradicating racism is simply a matter of purging our negative prejudices.
Rarely do films ask audiences to grapple with the deeply embedded, race-based habits that give white Americans an edge in everything from housing to employment, or the positive racial profiling that grants white people countless free passes.
Indeed, far from being confronted with the pernicious legacies of official discrimination, white audiences tend to have their assumptions about race reinforced. Black people are far more likely to go see movies with majority-white casts than vice versa. And whereas movies about African Americans have tended to be confined to comedies and urban dramas, the white experience has long been represented across a diverse range of genres, stories and characters.