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How Trayvon Martin's Death Highlights the Flaws in 'Fruitvale Station'

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by Sam Adams
July 16, 2013 4:13 PM
9 Comments
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Even before the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case came down, critics were drawing parallels between Martin, who was shot dead by Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, and Oscar Grant, who on New Year's Day, 2009 was shot dead by a Bay Area transit officer while he was lying face down on a subway platform. Grant's story is national news not because of new developments --  officer Johannes Mehserle, who said he thought he was firing his newly issued Taser, received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and was released in June of 2011; federal civil-rights charges against him are pending -- but because of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s docufictional account of Grant’s last 24 hours on earth.

In reviews of Fruitvale Station, variations on the word "weep" are never far off (Google counts 192,000 common uses). At Sundance, where the movie won the Grand Jury Prize, the largely white audiences broke down in collective tears, mourning the death of an innocent man who, based on the movie they'd just seen, was a loving father and boyfriend who was just starting to turn his sometimes troubled life around. He flushes a brick of marijuana he'd been planning to sell down the toilet -- the equivalent of burning money -- even though he's recently been fired from his legitimate job at a supermarket, and pauses in his daily rounds to cradle a dying dog in his arms. When the police come, breaking up an altercation started by a racist ex-con Grant bumped heads with in prison, he's defiant but not combative, clearly not doing anything to merit being subdued by force, let alone shot.

In my review of Fruitvale Station, I asked, "Does it matter that Oscar Grant loved his daughter, was kind to animals, helped strangers?" Upon further reflection, I don't think that's the right question, or at least it's only one of them. Insofar as Fruitvale Station is the story of Oscar Grant, the details of who he was matter immensely, even if the film's mildly beatific portrait seems like it's composed of the kinds of things you say at someone's funeral. But to the extent that Fruitvale Station trades on that portrait to invoke greater outrage about the killing of young nonwhite men, prompting the New York Times' A.O. Scott to close his review by asking, "How could this have happened? How did we -- meaning any one of us who might see faces like our own depicted on that screen -- allow it?" -- to that extent it's intensely problematic, building necessary political anger on a foundation of squishy sentimentality.

In the trial of George Zimmerman, his defense attorneys used the marijuana in Martin's bloodstream and cellphone pictures showing him holding a gun and flipping off the camera to paint Martin as an angry, potentially violent young man, one whom Zimmerman might reasonably have feared. Slate's William Saletan drew a breathtaking equivalence between Zimmerman's decision to treat a black man as a potentially armed robber -- the "they" in "They always get away" -- with Martin telling his girlfriend he was being followed by a "creepy-ass cracker"; never mind that "creepy-ass" is an accurate description of a strange man following you, first in his car and then on foot.

Martin, Zimmerman's defenders argue, was no saint -- and perhaps he wasn't. (He is tragically unable to testify in his own defense.) But the real question is: Why does it matter? Who cares if Martin used, or even sold, drugs, if he made obscene gestures or used unkind words? Does it change the fact that he was pursued, that Zimmerman engaged him after the police told him there was no need for him to do so, and in a manner that laid the groundwork for a one-on-one confrontation? (A real law enforcement officer, not a vigilante high on his own adrenaline, would have waited for backup, greatly reducing the likelihood of whatever altercation may have taken place.) 

Bringing the victim's character into play, even as a means of generating sympathetic outrage, opens the door to its mirror image. If Grant wasn't as noble as he's portrayed in Fruitvale Station -- an S.F. Weekly story says the movie "falls short of lionizing Grant, but still participates in his sanctification" -- would that make his death less unjust, or make the need for reform any less urgent? Fruitvale Station makes people cry, but crying's not enough.

Read more: Director Ryan Coogler Works on a Truer Myth of Oscar Grant.

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More: Reviews, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler

9 Comments

  • JoeS | July 26, 2013 6:11 PMReply

    I take Sam's points. Still, my operative notions in films like these have two basic tenets:

    1. No single film can be expected to represent everything. It's one story, one group of characters, one perspective (the filmmakers).

    2. Except in very rare cases, you do need a protagonist (flawed, good, bad, evil - doesn't matter) to draw the audience into a story. If FRUITVALE STATION had been a film about a bunch of generic Frisco residents on New Year's Eve and one of them, all of a sudden, got shot by the police it wouldn't have been as effective. Sure, you would have the 30 second shock of a shooting, but would audiences find that shock a replacement for a compelling storyline? No.

  • Andre Morton | July 18, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    It's always disappointing when a writer starts with a bold proclamation and fails to back it up with a cohesive argument that supports the thesis. But it's far worse and frankly disingenuous when a writer invokes a tragedy to generate "clicks". Ryan Coogler didn't set out to sanctify Grant but humanize him. When you ask "Does it matter that Oscar Grant loved his daughter, was kind to animals, helped strangers?" in the context of filmmaking of course it does. How else are we to understand "the character Oscar Grant" but through his actions? The Grant that Coogler characterizes is a also a rash, quick to anger, and less than reliable young man who had been in trouble with the law on more than one occasion, in other words a flawed all too human being. The film attempts to be a corrective to both the character assassination, and canonization that happens to men of color when they die violently by the hands of law enforcement or wanna be vigilantes. Yet Coogler goes further, (WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD) he humanizes the police officer who instigated the incident in a understated character performance by actor Kevin Durand, who attempts to comfort and keep Grant alive in his final conscious moments. Coogler has repeated often that his aim with the film was to restore the humanity to Oscar Grant. And it is only through empathizing the humanity of others that the Officer Ingram's and George Zimmerman's of the world alter course. Comparing the tactics of a legal defense to the affectations of a director is a fairly specious argument. Trials are supposed to be based on the facts surrounding an incident, not the character of the victim. Even if that seems to be forgotten it has no bearing on the works of artistic merit that aim for universal truths not facts.

  • Reading empty words (and writing them) | July 16, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    I feel bad about writing in a forum. First time I do and I hope I never have to do it again. But, dude take your head out of your ass. The director or whoever made the film have the right to portray his characters in the way they want. You want an objective story? Not even if you look at yourself in the mirror you are gonna get the facts. Everything happens through a brain. I read the stupid equations of the writer and I felt empty and sad about this critic. When he goes to the movies he thinks this way? He is so suspicious of everything. What a sad life. The movie intends to upset you. At least he is not boring people to death like this pseudo-intellectual, and me...

  • Mike | July 16, 2013 5:08 PMReply

    I think a better movie for filmmakers is for them not to make a movie centered on the victims like Grant and Martin, because not only the film can be glorifying these persons whom the audience don't really know before the movie, but also it's a much a more challenging task if they make a movie about the men who shot these victims. Can we still see morality in them? Why they did it? It's kinda like the second part in Place Beyond the Pines where we see Bradley Cooper's character lives his life and the aftermath after he shot someone.

  • donnadara | July 18, 2013 10:44 AM

    Screw that. George Zimmerman got his chance to tell his story in the court. Juror B37 cried for him. The victims need a voice. The murderers can speak in court.

  • Guy | July 16, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    Everything I read about this movie screams "manipulative"--I want to know from others who have seen it what they think. So many reviews seem to be so swept away by the story that they don't even address this. Sam's review sort of gets at it, I just want to know if there are any character wrinkles to Oscar Grant other than being a really stand-up guy? Is there any complexity to him? Or is he just a great person against a tough world?

    This article seems to retract Sam's point of view in his review and suggest this movie should be an agenda-pusher for reform. That worries me, and that being the motivating force behind the praise worries me. Is the death less unjust? Of course not, but we are seeing a dramatic recreation here--it must abide by the standards we set for all other movies. If the movie fails to depict the character in a truthful way, instead opting for an idealized view to cheaply heighten its tragedy, then it is a failure.

    Again, I want to hear from others, I haven't seen this yet. I'm basing this off of what impressions I get from this article and others like it which seem to stack the cards on recent events rather than the films own strengths and weaknesses independent of current events.

  • slice | September 3, 2013 1:58 AM

    First,see the movie before you start making any judgements. I saw it, and for one thing, Grant is not played up as some saint in the film---he's shown as the all-too-flawed human being he and anyone else on he planet earth is. It's actually a pretty good film,and it's refreshing because it's an indie film and not some Hollywood tearjerker----I will say that although I was already familiar with the case and its outcome, I still almost shed a tear at the end because it was so pointless.

  • Guy | July 16, 2013 5:45 PM

    Fair enough Sam. True that it is a political film and should be opinionated like one. I also agree that having more questions than answers is more interesting and satisfying, that's why I usually don't go for movies or docs that go after the topic-of-the-week (that's the Academy's job), not to say that this film is just grabbing at the headlines, not at all. I definitely believe this is a passionate, personal film. But, because of that and because its such a recent event it's tougher to get the objectivism that you desire from a movie that raises questions rather than answering them.

    I guess I should just suck it up and check this out for myself although I find it very intimidating especially after everything I've read up to this point.

  • Sam Adams | July 16, 2013 5:10 PM

    To clarify, I don't think the film should be an "agenda-pusher," but it exists in a political context and needs to account for that fact. I don't think that means being heavy-handed; for me, the most politically effective movies are those that leave you with more questions than answers.

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