I’ve just finished watching Gravity, and I can understand why, a year ago, it was a possible contender for the Academy Award. It’s an unusual film, an exiting film, and a complex one scientifically. Probably it was more terrifying to see on a big screen than it was here on my little television set. I can understand the disappointment of the director/producer and the female star when 12 Years a Slave won. Clearly, the subject—the terrors of racism, albeit historically presented—won, and not the terrors of forward-looking science and technology.
Ironically, of course, this year, as possible Academy Award films begin to challenge each other, there is nothing among them to capture the vision we have on small screens of white policemen killing black males, one even as young as twelve, and one old enough to have a couple of children. No film we are being offered comes close to the stories we hear about on television and in political speeches and read about in newspaper and magazine print.
People like me went to Mississippi in the mid-sixties, where we witnessed white police savagely attacking black youngsters “to teach them a lesson,” as I heard one officer say. And at least once in my months in Jackson, in 1964 and 1965 I saw members of the F.B.I. stand by while police banged kids in the head and kicked them as they lay on the ground. No one ever touched me, though I was told countless times to “go back where you came from.”
I did not understand how traumatic this experience had been until, back in Baltimore, the car I was driving was hit from behind by a truck that didn’t stop in time. As a white policeman approached my car, I screamed, “Don’t touch me. Get away from me.” He tried to tell me I was bleeding, but I kept on screaming until a friend came by and explained that I needed medical attention and the policeman was trying to be helpful.
Today, at lunch with my bi-racial grand-daughter, I heard her describe how her white father and black mother—both lawyers—had prepped her and her older brother about what to do if stopped by police, wherever they might be. “Don’t fight it. Don’t get angry. Do what you are told. Be passive. Say you want to call your father.”
I can’t explain rationally why all this came out after “Gravity,” unless it’s the word itself. Yes, it means the force that keeps us anchored to the earth, but it also means something of extreme significance. And that’s also where we are as a nation: somewhere in outer space, unwilling or unable to come to terms with our racist past, unable to break out of the racism that still controls many of us both consciously and unconsciously. I want to say, “How long? How many years longer before we are not burying black men killed by white men unable to control their fear."