Society has a stake in depicting people like Oscar Grant — people who have gone to prison, people who have committed crimes — as all one thing. Society has a reason to get anxious, as [Variety critic] Geoff Berkshire seems to, when the Oscar Grants of the world are depicted as people like us with good and bad parts, people to whom we can relate. Society runs on treating many people as less than human. Society depends on the social compact not falling apart when a young man is shot to death as he lays prone and unarmed on the pavement. Society depends on us accepting the fact that we jail people at a greater rate than anyone on the planet. Society depends on us accepting, as we are more and more enthusiastic about jailing people, that we are less and less interested in paying for adequate legal representation or adequate jail conditions. Society depends on us shrugging at brutality. Society relies on us not recognizing the essential humanity of the targets of the state’s power. Depicting people who commit crimes as one-dimensional criminals supports that social compact; depicting them as people — people more like us than unlike us — threatens it.
Society can’t function as presently constituted if we recognize the Oscar Grants of the world (or for that matter the Johannes Mehserles) as human beings, and act accordingly. Fruitvale Station is not subversive because it suggests Oscar Grant’s death was a grave injustice; it’s subversive because it suggests his life had value in the first place.
Hell, it’s just a matter of time and dumb luck. And, some would contend, perception.