There is a scene in the first half of Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013) that perfectly encapsulates the film. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), a young black man stuck between a former life of crime and a new path in life, pulls into an Oakland gas station. Coogler shows us Oscar in a wide, establishing shot; a BART train speeds across the top of the frame. The young man approaches a stray dog, pets him, and then puts it on its way. We begin to hear sirens off-screen, a screech, and the death cry of a dog that has been hit by a car. In this scene, Coogler sums up the pointless loss of life that would take place at Fruitvale Station later that New Year’s Eve when a San Francisco BART cop shot and killed Oscar Grant. The train, the chaos of the sirens, and the careless behavior, the lovable stray dog… They set the stage for what was essentially a tragic case of someone being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is difficult to not think about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case when going into Fruitvale (which is based on a true story – we see the actual cell phone footage of the shooting in the first moments of the film, so we know how this is going to end). Both are cases of young black youth shot under suspicious circumstances and both ended with outraged protests for justice (unlike Zimmerman, the police officer who shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison). I wish I could sit down with a bunch of Yahoo! News commenters and show them Fruitvale Station. It is about as accessible as a movie can be about race and maybe – just maybe – they would be able to understand that America is a far cry from being post-racial.
I tried to think like a Yahoo! commenter while watching Coogler’s film because I felt like the message of the film was already speaking to my choir and I wanted to consider how filmmakers and artists can reach beyond the echo chamber to try and change some minds about the issue of race in contemporary America. Essentially, I kept asking myself how one of those folks who thinks it’s racist to point out that he or she is being racist (because of the 1st Amendment!) might poke holes in it. First off, the film is chiefly a chronicle of the loss of Oscar Grant. I would suspect that this narrative focus – in itself – would have the Yahoo! News crowd crying foul that the film is a left-wing hatchet job that seeks to turn Oscar Grant into a Jesus Christ figure.
However, that interpretation of the film doesn’t get very far. Oscar is shown as being a flawed, complex person. He has a checkered past that involved time in prison. He’s attempting to move away from his life as a drug dealer so that he will never be away from his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), mom (Octavia Spencer), and daughter again. He goes to the grocery store to get crabs for his mother’s birthday gumbo. While at the store, he pleads with his former boss so he can get his job back – until it escalates into small confrontation. Essentially, the Oscar Grant that the film presents us with is a loving, quick tempered, soul. The main objective of the film is to humanize his last day on this Earth and, in that respect, the film is a tremendous success.
A Yahoo! News commenter might then object that the film humanizes Oscar at the cost of looking into the mindset of the police officer who shot him. After all, couldn’t the officer have been stressed out after dealing with all the bickering drunkards on the BART? Could this stress have really caused him to momentarily become confused between his taser – which he said he thought he had in his hand – and his service weapon? We never know. I might tend to agree with the Yahoo! here, but for a different reason. The hypothetical commenter might write the movie off as being racist towards white folks at this point because Coogler’s film provides about as much characterization to the perpetrator as 1940s combat films did for the Nazis or Japanese. Of course, there might not be any story there and, considering that the names of the officers involved were changed for the film, perhaps their families don’t want that story told.
My reason for objection has more to do with the goal of the film. By structuring itself in such a way, it takes the goal of lamenting the very real and very tragic loss of Grant more seriously than interrogating racism, which makes it an accessible but compromised piece of art. It’s stuck somewhere between Crash (2004) and Do the Right Thing (1989) while I wish it was closer to the latter (or, more ideally, closer to another text featuring Michael B. Jordan: The Wire). And this is where I had smaller reservations with the film as a film. It is wonderfully performed (Jordan especially, who is supported by solid performances) and Coogler (a recent graduate of USC who is just 27 years old) has the ability to capitalize upon the slow churn dread of the film that it almost becomes nauseating (“Take the train,” Oscar’s mom tells him on the hope that it will keep him out of trouble). Yet, the film pulls and tugs at the heartstrings in such a stereotypical fashion – every pause and every beat hits the mark at the same point that every other tragedy does – and the contrivances built into the script (a white woman Oscar helps at the grocery store ends up being the one taking the cell phone video) overload an already loaded movie. These are minor concerns overall however and even if the film is compromised, I still admire it for trying to start a rational conversation about race.