Wednesday, August 28, 2013
"Fruitvale Station" is about what we can imagine when we cast our gaze across the longstanding divides in this persistently, cancerously segregated American society. Like Paul Haggis' "Crash," it is an ambitious do-gooder project aimed at penetrating hardened hearts. Unlike "Crash," it has one solid, irrefutable piece of reality on which to anchor its fable-like teachable moments: The protagonist, Oscar Grant (the brilliant Michael B. Jordan), was a real 22-year-old man. The first thing we see in "Fruitvale" is the fatal moment that will lead to Oscar's death. Camera phone footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit cops beating Oscar and his friends on a subway platform ends with a gunshot.
The rest of the film dramatizes what Oscar was up to the day before he was killed, New Year's Eve 2009. I must paraphrase "The Elephant Man" to explain what it all amounts to: Oscar was not an animal. He was a human being. He had dreams and feelings. He cared for many people, and many people cared for him. His death left a giant crater in several lives.
For those of you who understand that young black men are humans, not beasts, it might sound like a silly project to undertake. But consider what pop culture gives us to go on. For every complicated, vulnerable, flawed but basically decent black male character or celebrity there are a hundred loud, imbecilic thugs. Ho'wood spent six decades emasculating and lobotomizing black male characters, then traded on some cheap, crime-based empowerment narratives via blaxploitation.
The past three decades were about depicting the refurbished, physically potent and powerful black man as a moral and intellectual weakling. When we did get a glimpse of black male intelligence, it tended to be the psychopathic "street smart" variety. The pop icons among rap artists, the ones who dine with the corporate elite, promote prison culture, ruthless self-interest and jewelry.
These images have fed racists, but they've also fed generations of black boys who learned that survival in a country that has little use for them means suppressing "soft" emotions and projecting a confidence that, in black skin, often comes off as arrogance. People who wanted to believe that blacks are inferior and black youth who took these images of aggressive inferiority as the underclass path to success joined hands to keep the dehumanization circus in business into the new century.
We went to see Fruitvale Station last night. It's based on the true story of Oscar Grant, who was dragged off a BART train in Oakland in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009, and shot and killed by a BART police officer for essentially no worse a crime than being young, and male and black. Seen in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Zimmerman trial, it's a powerful movie that sheds much light on the plight of young black men in a society that regards them with suspicion, fear, and loathing, and hog-tied by laws and law enforcement practices that single them out for special, and especially harsh, treatment.
The movie follows Oscar for the length of the day that precedes his death, including flashbacks to the kind of prison experience that is almost routine too many of our young black men. We see him doing what he can to learn to control the anger and resentment that threaten to poison his relationship with his girlfriend and their little daughter; to correct the missteps of the past, to find a viable path for himself to employment and a decent living, and to change his life for the better. He meets with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and frustration at every turn. By the end of the day he's ready to do whatever he can to find an outlet for his natural energy, and head off in search of some simple fun.
Aside from some terrific acting and some scenes that grab the attention for their gritty realism, the movie has the poetic feel of classical tragedy, building with that growing sense of awful inevitability toward its fatal climax. It shares with tragedy that sense of necessity -- that from the first moment, once the die is cast, there is no other outcome possible for the story's hero. His own needless death is foreshadowed by the senseless, casual hit-and-run killing of an innocent dog, which he is powerless to prevent. From that moment we, the audience, watch in dismay and horror as what we have known is to happen from the start fulfills itself, no matter his futile efforts to save himself. And yet, despite their social circumstance, the movie manages to find the essential nobility of the human beings caught up in its web: the mother, the girlfriend, the little girl, all beautiful and, in the end, somehow transcendent in their grief. If there is catharsis in this tragedy, it is found in the resplendent -- and, yes, feminine--glow of this transcendence over misplaced, aggressive, uncontrolled male energy.
Ryan Coogler's quietly gripping debut feature rolls into Cannes to tell us the backstory of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man shot dead by a transit cop on the first day of 2009. In the ensuing years Grant has been filed away as another statistic, an old familiar tale amid thousands of others. Yet Fruitvale Station made a noise at Sundance, was snapped up by the Weinsteins and played out to roaring approval here in the Un Certain Regard section. One has the sense of a man being slowly, surely written back into being.
Coogler chooses to open with phone footage of the actual incident at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, California. From here, however, the film winds back. It gives us the last 24 hours in Oscar's life, together with an elegant flashback to his time in prison. The drama idles deceptively, lulling us with a whirl of domestic routines in verdant, blue-collar suburbia. Yet all the while that final destination keeps clanging in the memory, like a train driver's announcement. We know where this is leading, whether we want it to or not.
Michael B Jordan (so good as Wallace in The Wire) plays Oscar, a cocksure charmer who loves his mum (Octavia Spencer), dotes on his daughter and attempts, by and large, to stay true to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz). He's the sort of guy who is happy to help with the groceries or lend a hand to a pregnant woman in search of a bathroom. And yet Oscar is also wired, jumpy, easily frustrated. He has too much energy and no reliable outlet. "Calm down, Oscar!" his mother hisses – and her steely, unblinking stare suggests that she has had to talk him down from this ledge before.
Harvey Weinstein’s big Oscar hopeful this summer is “Fruitvale Station,” a true story about the fatal Oakland shooting of an unarmed young black man that arrived with almost miraculous timing. Hitting theaters just as the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial were deliberating. the film won the two top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and has become a cause celebre among critics. Activists are seizing the opportunity to promote the movie, which calls for justice and implies that nothing like it has occurred yet, though the man who shot and killed Oscar Grant has already served time in prison and Grant’s family has prevailed in a large civil suit.
Hoping to stir the public, though, the film dances around the facts. Its first problem is how to handle its 22-year-old subject (played by Michael B. Jordan), who was a small-time criminal who cheated on his girlfriend and had been fired from a job at a grocery store. All of these flaws are depicted in the film, but nevertheless “Fruitvale Station,” a debut effort from young filmmaker Ryan Coogler, tries to fit a halo on its subject, seemingly to play up the audience’s sympathies.
Even had Grant been the worst man in the Bay Area, of course, he should not have been shot in the back by a cop while lying face down on a subway platform, and the film’s implicit plea that all human lives are special and deserving of basic dignity is a compelling one. But should a film about politically charged events that happened only four years ago simply fabricate incidents for dramatic effect?