Fruitvale Station Review: The Most Important Film of the Year
Sooner or later, all human beings must confront the elephant in the room. There comes a time when we can no longer look away from that which stands before us. We can run and we can hide, but when the dust settles, we must come out from under the covers and face the day.
The toughest task of the film critic is to call out the elephant in the room when he or she sees it. For instance, Triumph of the Will (1935) is a difficult film to discuss, not only because it is a piece of Nazi propaganda, but because the film forces us to deal with the fact that Adolf Hitler was perhaps the most captivating orator the world has ever known. History tells us that Hitler was responsible for the murder of six million Jews, and for good reason, we are repulsed and disgusted by his actions. So when we watch Triumph of the Will, the elephant in the room becomes clear to us: Hitler, for all his faults, knew how to charm an audience.
The best art usually forces us to face the elephant in the room, and the best criticism should be able to acknowledge this without sidestepping the issue or ignoring it completely. In the case of Fruitvale Station (2013), Ryan Coogler’s excellent debut, the elephant in the room is contemporary race relations. The film, which is based upon the true story of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), a 22 year-old African-American male who was gunned down by a BART police officer on January 1, 2009, is brave enough to confront the issue of race and all of its complexities. As a result, it is the most important film of the year.
Those who claim that race is no longer an issue in America are wrong. Even though I admittedly didn’t follow the George Zimmerman trial–precisely because the American media turns everything into an issue–it is for good reason that this specific trial has opened up a dialogue about race relations in contemporary America. President Obama may have received criticism for commenting on Trayvon Martin’s death, but like his speech on race in 2008, he highlights many important issues that still plague American culture and society. By admitting that Martin could have been him, Obama reminded us that the African-American experience has been a hard fought battle against intolerance, injustice, and ignorance, and that the battle still rages on every time someone like Martin is shot to death for looking young, black, and suspicious.
Michelle Alexander takes it a step further, as she calls attention to the inequities between whites and blacks in her eye-opening book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. According to Alexander:
“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind,” (2012: 2).
Alexander raises numerous thought-provoking claims about the American justice system and how it is supposedly designed to maintain a social and cultural hierarchy between whites and blacks in which African-Americans are systematically treated as second-class citizens. Of course there are exceptions, as not all African-Americans are incarcerated and not only African-Americans are incarcerated, but Alexander’s point is necessary and inarguable: it is much easier for a white American to be arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and start a new life than it is for an African-American. There are many reasons for this, as it is a complex issue, but much of it comes down to class and, not surprisingly, race.
Oscar Grant is a product of this unfair justice system. The film tells us that Grant was incarcerated in 2008 for drug dealing. In a harrowing flashback scene, Grant is visited by his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and it is clear that he is partially responsible for his behavior. He comes off as a selfish, arrogant, and short-tempered young man who still has much to learn about life.
And most audience members might agree that Grant’s poor behavior landed him in prison. As David Henry reminds us, a neoliberal society stresses personal responsibility, and in many ways we Americans live in a society where individuals are responsible for their own actions and must take ownership of their mistakes. There are no excuses in America–someone is always at fault. Even in car accidents, one person remains the culprit. On some level, personal responsibility is important for individuals to grow, but Alexander argues that it is this mode of thought that has allowed American culture to normalize institutional racism. That is, if a black youth is in prison, he must have done something to deserve it, so we have no obligation to treat him like a citizen. Moreover, because he is in prison, we can view him as a criminal and socially and culturally justify our discrimination.
The majority of Fruitvale Station focuses on the final day of Grant’s life, December 31, 2008, as he struggles to reinvent himself after his prison sentence. The best thing about the film is that Coogler and Jordan make no attempt to deify Grant. He is depicted as a complex individual who has much to learn about adulthood. In one scene, Grant returns to a job that he was presumably fired from weeks earlier for showing up late in an attempt to acquire a second chance. He is not given a second chance, and again, most audience members might think: “Tough luck, but this is what happens when you show up late for work.”
Throughout the film, audience members are given brief glimpses into a man who lives on the fringes of society. Oscar surely represents the nameless African-American males who fall off track and try to rebuild their lives within a system that is stacked against them. His girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) works at Wal Mart to support their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and his sister similarly works at a fast-food chain to survive. His father is absent from the picture, and his mother is the glue that keeps the family together.
There are moments in the film that are difficult to watch. They should be. The life of Oscar Grant was tragically cut short and although Fruitvale Station is not necessarily a pleasant experience, it is a necessary one. The performances by Jordan, Spencer, and Diaz are nothing short of spectacular. Jordan, who has made brief appearances in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, gives a star-making, career-defining performance as a young kid who may not always make the best decisions but who ultimately has his heart in the right place. He cares about his family, and some of the best moments in the film show the joy and love Grant brings to his girlfriend, his daughter, and his mother. Diaz, who delivered a scene-stealing performance in Raising Victor Vargas (2002), is a revelation as the single mother who believes in Grant, and although the awards attention might be given to her more famous co-star, her work in the film’s final scenes is riveting and demands our attention and respect. Finally, Spencer tops her performance in The Help (2011) with a role that might garner her a second golden statue. When Wanda realizes that her son was murdered, Spencer’s facial expressions are heartbreaking in every sense of the word.
Coogler is credited as the film’s writer and director, and Fruitvale Station marks one of the greatest debuts in cinema history, akin to Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991), and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999). This is the work of a confident artist in control of his craft, and Coogler is unafraid to tackle the truth with all of its contradictions and complexities.
The life and death of Oscar Grant reminds us that race is still an issue in contemporary America. Ultimately, Coogler asks us where we draw the line between race and responsibility. To what extent is Grant responsible for his life, and to what extent is he a product of a larger culture and society that thrives and survives on the institutional racism against African-Americans? To what extent is he a selfish, arrogant young man, and to what extent has the American justice system conditioned him to be this way? Is his shooting the result of a racist cop, or is it the result of chaos, confusion, and the irresponsible behavior of a police officer who should have received proper training?
These questions are asked by Coogler but they are not easily answered. All we have are the objective facts. Grant was an African-American young male with a criminal record, a daughter, and a girlfriend. He celebrated New Year’s Eve with his girlfriend and friends. A former inmate approached him on a train, punched him, and started a fight. The BART police stopped the train, broke up the fight, and singled out the African-Americans involved in the fight. Presumably the former inmate who incited the fight was not singled out by the police officers. Although the police did not know that Grant was involved, they pulled him off of the train to join the rest of the African-Americans. The moment was tense and chaotic, but the cell phone footage of the incident shows that Grant was cooperative. One of the officers, an older white male, shot Grant in the back. Grant was pronounced dead on January 1, 2009.
These facts are revealing, but I still don’t know exactly what they reveal.
What do you think? Leave a comment.