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It's Oscar (Grant) Season!

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In Oscar-contender Slumdog Millionaire, Indian “slumdog” Jamal struggles through the horrors of poverty in Mumbai to find himself a question away from 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”  Jamal endures all manner of unspeakable hardship, which director Danny Boyle captures with an unflinching eye.

But beneath this gritty exterior, beneath the random violence and daily tragedy of third-world poverty, Slumdog is a profoundly sentimental film. Jamal triumphs over the injustices foisted upon him by a cruel and indifferent system, populated by some cruel and indifferent people, and not in spite of these struggles, but because of them.  Jamal is cosmically rewarded for his suffering.  The film “is bright-eyed, optimistic – idealistic, even,” writes UK Telegraph commentator David Gritten.

Slumdog Millionaire is “the first film of the Obama era,” according to Gritten.

He sees a parallel in the film’s word of mouth success and Obama’s victory –that indeed, we are hungry for idealism, for a better world, a world in which the least fortunate of us, like Jamal, can find happiness and prosperity. This is the story of Obama’s life, and this was the message – of change, of hope, of a better America – which he was elected on.

Slumdog is the American Dream, echoed back from Mumbai, via a British director.  It is the hope that indeed, we can change our current situation – for if Jamal can do it, so can we.

And when I saw the film at a theatre in Oakland, CA, a few days before New Years’ Day, Slumdog’s idealism was clearly appreciated, as the full house gave Jamal a standing ovation.  Everyone in the audience – both on the screen and in the theatre – is rooting for Jamal, the slumdog everyman, to win that money, to get the girl, and to get what he deserves.

Days later, another Oscar story is filmed in Oakland, and screened around the world .  This one, however, doesn’t have a happy ending. 

On New Years Day, Oscar Grant, a 22-year old unarmed African American, is shot by 27-year old white police officer Johannes Mehserle.  In the horrifying video shot by another transit rider on a cell phone, you can see Oscar, who is restrained and lying on the ground, shot in the back by Mehserle (see the local news report).  The two-minute film is “grittier” than anything Danny Boyle, or any other Oscar contender, could conceive.  And the reality much messier. 

While Slumdog no doubt captures the aspirations of the Obama era – a world with justice for all –  the “live” execution of Oscar Grant is the real first film of the Obama era, in illustrating how far we are away from this ideal.

Unlike the Bush era, in which all conflicts were framed by the administration as epic struggles between “good” and “evil,” in which there were no shades of grey, Oscar’s shooting represents the socially complex America Obama inherits.   And Oscar’s shooting calls us to respond with a more complex morality than the Bush era, to move beyond a vindictive, simplistic response to the social-ills we face.

When you see the brutal video, it’s easy look at it in black and white – not just racially, but morally. It’s easy to oversimplify, to see the film in Hollywood terms, in Bush terms, to see one side as “good” and the other as “evil,” so that we know who to punish and who to reward.  We have, after all, been steeped in this morality the last 8 years.

It would be much easier, much less messy, if only Mehserle is an evil, sociopathic racist with an itchy trigger finger, and he shot Oscar in cold-blood.  Then we could loathe him, and he could be punished accordingly, as those who are evil get what they deserve – evil.  No doubt, this logic explains death threats sent to both him and his family.  If he killed, he deserves to be killed, as we must eliminate evil from the world to make it a better place.

Similarly, the film would be easier to swallow if Oscar had lunged at the officers, if he had grabbed for a weapon, or if, as commentator Tolu Olorunda observed, he was a criminal. “CNN, MSNBC and FOX News (and their many affiliated siblings) have all reported that Oscar Grant supposedly had a (police) record, and thus, somehow – logic be damned! – culpable in his own death.”  If Oscar was “evil,” then his death would be “justified”, as those who are “bad” get what they deserve. 

Oscar’s shooting shows us the other side of the Slumdog morality: just as Jamal is rewarded for his suffering, so should Mehserle be punished for the suffering he caused.  That’s justice, right? 

But in reality, things aren’t so black and white.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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