CINEMA: Trayvon Station

FRUITVALE STATION (2013, directed by Ryan Coogler, 90 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Fruitvale Station is a true tear-jerker, a genre somewhat disreputable among male film critics (no big surprise) because bypassing the intellectual and heading straight to the emotional is seen as a dirty trick for a film to do to a guy. If Fruitvale Station is particularly successful in milking its viewers’ emotions, it may be because the American public has been slow to show empathy for the violence that been prejudicially doled out by law enforcement against African Americans and people of color in the U.S. Film writers love to maintain the illusion of objectivity but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this writer was left a sobbing puddle by the film as well.

Fruitvale Station is named after a stop on the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, the commuter rail line that connects Oakland to San Francisco. Early on New Year’s Day 2009, a scuffle on a train broke out after and the system’s own BART Police were called. Nineteen-year-old Oscar Grant was among the men pulled from the train and while the unarmed man was being restrained BART policeman Johannes Mehserle pulled his gun and fired a bullet in Grant’s back, killing him. It is just one example of the deadly force that law enforcement too often uses on people of color, events that too often go unpunished. Grant’s case was set apart by the fact that clear cellphone footage of the killing quickly went viral. Large protests took place and Mehserle was ultimately convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter, serving two years in prison.

First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler has taken this politically-charged story and constrained the focus to Oscar Grant’s last day on earth. Grant (played movingly by The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan) is presented as a young man not without flaws (he has been to prison, he deals drugs, and he has cheated on his girlfriend and mother of his child) but Coogler lets us know that he believes a man is more than the sum of his worst actions. Grant’s best side is shown with his family, particularly his mother, (a deep performance from Octavia Spenser) for whom Grant is trying to fund a birthday celebration despite having just lost his job at a local grocery store.

More than any one event, what Fruitvale Station does best is to present the world this young black man lives in, a world that seethes with an undercurrent of despair, partially an effect of the high rates of unemployment and incarceration of which African Americans are victims. The economic downturn of the last decade has had effects far and wide on U.S. citizens, but it isn’t always apparent when watching the stories on American screens. Beyond the film’s tragic denouncement there is a cathartic element to seeing the modern struggle to keep your head above water acknowledged. Like DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief, Fruitvale Station gets to the dull ache of poverty and the overwhelming difficulties in escaping its grasp. Grant is full of earnest hopes but the milieu in which he lives seems determined to swallow him whole. We see all sides of Oscar over the course of the story, and it’s sad to report that there aren’t many other fully-developed young black male characters to be found in recent American films.

There is a danger is fictionalizing Grant’s final hours and Coogler’s script is a bit shameless in taking the events of the day and giving them an overly-concise construction, particularly in letting a character from earlier in the film coincidentally arrives at the crucial moment of the film’s climax. The film exudes a wonderful naturalism throughout that makes such writers’ conventions appear all the more dubious. It’s that naturalism that wins out though, making it easy to see these dramatic inventions as divining a deeper truth about the interconnection that extends beyond racial and class barriers.

Some reviewers have decried this as politics that taint the director’s case, but seeing such deeply held beliefs on screen, on either side of an issue, makes for a passionate brand of cinema that trumps the indecisive neutrality that plagues many American political films. And really, is decrying the actions that resulted in the death of an unarmed man, detained in suspicion of a misdemeanor, really that controversial a stand?

The viewer is left with an uncomfortable sense of helplessness over the course of the film, as we know that Grant’s struggles to set things right are all going to be for nothing as he stumbles towards his fate. If the viewer is unaware of the history of African American men and law enforcement, one might be able to convince themselves that the Oscar Grant killing was an anomaly. Such a perspective is harder to cling to in recent days though, with the exoneration of George Zimmerman and the release of the recent study of the racially-applied “Stop and Frisk” laws of New York City. If Fruitvale Station has a political agenda, it is to make us see Oscar Grant as not just a black man, not just a martyr, but the fellow human being behind this fleeting news story. That alone may be a small victory but it is also the most fitting place for a conversation to start.