By Michael Jones | Shadow and Act July 23, 2013 at 5:14PM
I saw Fruitvale Station in the wake of the ubiquitous media coverage of the Trayvon Martin verdict. I’ve had some pointed opinions on the whole affair, namely how tragic and seemingly unjust the verdict was, then I tell myself that only Zimmerman and the departed Mr. Martin know what happened that night and the jury deliberated purely on the evidence presented to them. I also scratch my head at how the African-American community mobilized in the wake of the initial shooting and the verdict, whereas the death toll of blacks at the hands of other blacks have reached nearly genocidal levels in Chicago, yet not much is said or done. With that in mind, I went into this film determined to keep my intellectualism and my penchant for discernment intact. I’ll come back to this point later.
In a prologue, we see the actual cell phone footage of the shooting, which was viewed over and over on You Tube by the entire country, yet more than four years later, it’s still shocking. After the credits, we’re eerily plunged into the relative calm of the life of Oscar Grant, as portrayed almost sedately through the majority of the film by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, The Wire). By way of handheld camera work, and the utmost natural, unaffected performances by Jordan, Melonie Diaz as girlfriend Sophina, Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother and the majority of the remaining cast, we feel like voyeurs watching the latest reality show, only this show has a premise that we’re not likely to see on TV: a young black man who has made mistakes in the past but is attempting to atone for the sake of his girlfriend and their daughter. I say you’re not likely to see this reality show on TV because this young black man doesn’t have numerous women on speed dial, he doesn’t rock gold chains or teeth, nor does he have a gaggle of kids. And as evidenced by current reality programming featuring African-American performers, Oscar is way too tame.
That’s not to say he’s an angel. When we’re first introduced to the character of Oscar, it’s during a late-night argument with his girlfriend over an affair. In subsequent scenes, his temper drives his mother away during a jail visit. He can’t hold a job due to irresponsible behavior. He sells weed. He and his friends use the N word with each other far too much (well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine, but that’s a debate to be had in another forum). In other words, this guy has problems. But wait a minute. Does director Ryan Coogler go a bit overboard in trying to elicit sympathy for Oscar? The opening argument with his girlfriend concludes with him proclaiming his devotion to her only and forevermore, as their daughter jumps into bed with them and they sleep in each other’s arms. After displaying a flash of bad temper to his ex-boss at his former job at a local market, he calmly goes back to assisting a young Caucasian woman who has no idea what kind of fish to fry for her husband’s black friends. And in scenes that are particularly transparent in their foreshadowing, he’s almost brought to tears over the death of a stray dog, a victim of a hit and run in the shadow of the BART train (the train he was riding on the night he was shot) as well as the scene where he’s play-fighting with his daughter who has him pinned to the ground while he smiles broadly, in direct contrast to his demeanor while being pinned to the ground by the BART police.
Scenes like this make one wonder if, somewhat like Jackie Robinson’s portrayal earlier this year in the film “42,” the director is overly eulogizing Oscar. Even though he shows us a bit of his negative side, as I outlined previously, some of these scenes are obviously meant to pander to a certain degree. There’s a scene near the end of the film where a Caucasian gentleman engages Oscar in a conversation while waiting for his wife, a little after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not to be cynical, but I would like to visit the world where white businessmen openly converse with black urban youth on the street at night (would that we lived in that world today); the gentleman, an entrepreneur who has a successful internet business, offers Oscar a business card and tells him to call if he needs anything. In light of the events on the night Trayvon was killed, this scene smacks of ingratiating political correctness, but more than that, it’s clear that the scene implores us to see hope in Oscar’s circumstance, so as to make the outcome of the film all the more devastating. It’s the reverse of Ricky’s mom getting his college acceptance letter in the mail after Ricky has been shot dead by a gang-banger (for the uninitiated, see John Singleton’s film debut).
Now, back to my intellectualism. Let me first say, there’s a really implausible and contrived coincidence in the third act whose only purpose is to push the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion, but for the most part, as manipulative as some of these scenes are, the movie is powerfully effective. And eerily timely. After having seen the You Tube clip, after having seen that same clip at the beginning of this film, the crowd still gasped when the bullet was fired into Oscar’s back. The tension was palpable when Kevin Durand, an actor who plays slimy characters a little too well, appears as a cop who is downright abusive to Oscar and his friends on the Fruitvale platform. Durand is the one character who is played almost as a caricature in the film, then again, who’s to say the real cop wasn’t a living caricature? During a credit summation when it’s revealed that the cop who shot Oscar was sentenced to only two years for involuntary manslaughter and released after only eleven months, there was audible cursing in the theater. My breath caught as well when I read that. I say all this to make the point that, while watching this film, I knew I was being manipulated at times and I was proud of myself for being able to discern that and maintain objectivity. I was sufficiently moved, mind you (I’m not a robot for God’s sake), and I remained emotionally attached but intellectually intact, even when Oscar’s daughter asks her mother the next day after the shooting, “Where’s Daddy?”
Flash forward and I’m walking out of the theater feeling surprisingly positive and energized, I guess due to endorphins released as a counteragent to the downer experience I just had. I’m sitting in a diner in NYC near the theater having dinner. I look up to a bank of TVs to see Piers Morgan discussing the case of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Florida who received 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Her attorneys used the Stand Your Ground law in their defense. Piers goes on to compare that case to the Martin case, in which Zimmerman went free based in part, if not completely, on the same law. Then I see in my head once again the onscreen text which proclaimed that the cop who shot Oscar went free after only eleven months. The shooting scene replays in my head. The scene of the doctor delivering the news of Oscar’s death to his mom replays in my head (none of this can fairly be considered spoilers at this current time). My bottom lip starts quivering, my eyes well up. Intellectualism and discernment be damned. At that moment, I was angry. I was sick and upset with all the foolishness perpetrated by white people AND black people which continues to lead to more senseless violence in the black community. What this movie did was sneak up on me and disarm me. I left the theater with a rating in mind but I hadn’t yet finished digesting the film. I can say that despite a few scenes that pander for emotion, this film does what it’s meant to do; humanize a young man who, despite all his flaws and errors in judgment, despite how society may view him, even in a clearly unjust death, didn’t deserve what fate had in store for him. Particularly given that he was turning his life around.
I said earlier that this movie plays as a 90 minute eulogy to Oscar Grant. I want to amend that; this movie is not a eulogy to only Oscar, it’s a eulogy to Trayvon Martin as well.