I spent the first part of this week talking with various members of Blackout for Human Rights, a self-described leaderless network of activists, artists and everyday people that’s come together to speak out against the extrajudicial killings of black men. Formed in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s killing last August, the network staged a nationwide boycott of Black Friday, America’s busiest shopping day of the year.
I also chatted with Ryan Coogler, one of the network’s founders. Coogler directed the critically-acclaimed film “Fruitvale Station,” which follows a doom-fated Oscar Grant on the last day of his life before he was shot and killed by former Bay Area transit cop Johannes Mehserle. Coogler made it clear that the network’s strength was its diversity, and while the big names of the bunch had gotten a lot of attention, its power comes from the range ideas it gets from its members, most of whom aren’t very famous. But the celebrity part of this still intrigued me, namely in light of recent debates about how politically active black celebrities could and should be in today’s world. Remember a couple years ago when Harry Belafonte called out Beyonce and Jay-Z for being selfish? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking.
In addition to the reporting I did for this morning’s story, something interesting that didn’t quite make it into the final piece was this: why Coogler didn’t think his artwork was enough.
You made a film about these very issues called “Fruitvale Station.” Why wasn’t that enough? Why were you compelled to do more in the community?
I made that film fresh out of graduate school. I actually started working on it before I’d graduated, so I was young when I made it. When I was making the film, there was a question that I had as to how a situation like this [Oscar Grant’s murder] could happen and how it could happen so often. I was exploring that through the art form that I like to engage with and I was doing it in a way to maybe find the answers for myself, maybe raise questions in audience members.
But at the end of the day, with a work of art – which is what filmmaking is – the most you can do is give people perspective on a situation, whether that’s a fiction situation or a non-fiction situation, and you can make people think. You can trigger dialogue, trigger discussion. What you can do in terms of real work networking is kind of the same thing, but just on a more grassroots level. And on a level where more people can contribute. When you’re working on a film, only those folks who are in the film industry can contribute to making that happen. But when you have a loose network like what Blackout is, with people from all different backgrounds, all different careers, all different demographics, you can share information and talk. I’ve found in a couple months we’ve been able to get a lot done and have conversations that nobody would be able to have when they’re operating in their own bubble.