Black history has been impacted in many ways this month, and not exactly all by events and circumstances controllable by Black Afrikan Amerikkkans(Black African Americans). On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Benjamin Martin was shot and murdered by George “Georgie” Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. July 13, 2013, five white women and a racial straggler found Georgie Zimmerman ‘not guilty’. A week later, Bridget and I decided to catch a midday screening of the independent film written and directed by Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station”.
I am always a bit skeptical with cinema reenactments. After I read Chris Gardner’s “The Pursuit of Happyness”, and then watched the Will Smith “turned down” for nominations of the Academy kind adaptation, I pretty much assumed “based on a true story” just meant they used names of historical personalities but left out the good parts of their actual history. The handling of Oscar Julius Grant III by Coogler– and those that mentored him out of Forrest Whitaker’s camp– was slightly less delicate, although, I still have my reservations. The portrayal of anyone whose name has become as socially infused with the ideas germinated when discussing senseless murder of Blacks by incompetent White cops, neighborhood watchers, vigilantes, and the like, has to almost always be one of two presentations: documentary style reenactment or dramatic recounting of events with liberties taken for the sake of emotional appeal.
Instead of making a choice, in true US Black fashion, Ryan decides to mix both flavors. And from that decision, I believe, in the same thinking as Armond White on this film, is where Ryan departs from an impeccable presentation of Oscar Grant and the events leading up to his murder. Instead, we are left with one in which overly dramatic cinematic devices are scattered throughout what is more masterful during its more subtle renderings.
The movie starts out with us overhearing a conversation between Oscar and his girlfriend, the mother of his daughter, Sophina. From their two to three lines capturing an intimate moment before the black screen of credits is even lifted, we are thrust into the camera phone recording of the murder of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale Station by Bay Area Rapid Transit cop, Johannes Mehserle. It is this sort of juxtaposition of real life footage, and drama, that leaps out at you as reminder that yes, this is Coogler’s first time at bat.
The chemistry between Melonie Diaz(Lords of Dogtown, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints)– who plays Sophina –and Michael Bakari Jordan(The Wire, Chronicle)– who fills the role of Oscar– is compelling and refreshing. Once again, I have to agree with Armond White, the cast truly brings this storyline through all of its rough patches. The strength of the movie is not so much in the hair-pin trigger anger displayed throughout the film by the character of Oscar– although Michael elicits multidimensional range here– it is the interactions of Oscar with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer(The Help), as well as his relationship with his daughter, Tatiana–played by Ariana Neal.
The existentialist approach to Oscar was lackluster. The scene where he is sitting by the water is only buttressed by the flashback of him being visited in prison by his mother. The dramatic fulcrum of this film should have been the redemptive aspect, symbolized in him tossing an ounce of weed into the ocean(which, by the way guys, was underplayed as a device, and overplayed as a prop. An ounce of weed has never looked that large!).
I was deeply moved by the scene of Oscar with his mother in prison. It is scenes like this that– although in this storyline a device for foreshadowing and historical maintenance– balance the narrative with the outlying socio-political framework that many US Blacks face in this country. I was also carried to personal reflection by the scene depicting Oscar, Sophina, and Oscar’s family sharing his mother’s birthday celebration together. This is definitely where Coogler shines in his storytelling, the soft scores of composer Ludwig Garrinson guiding us through what is a woman’s last day with her son, which also happens to be her born day.
I was appalled by the red-nose pit scene. It is a symbolism almost as unnecessary and way too blatant as the withering plant in Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun”. The subtle details of Christmas decorations still left up on New Year’s Eve and discussions of Superbowl picks based on the racial make up of the coach where well received.
As stated, the on-screen chemistry of Michael and Melonie creates a solidifying cohesive. When we see Oscar and Sophina dropping off Tatiana at Sophina’s sister house, I almost forget that they were an interracial couple, technically. Which is one of the reasons I felt like the characterization of Oscar Grant and his “flaws” were over pronounced in the writing. It did not leave much for new discussions in cinema. US Black men are always characterized as violent, angry, criminal, or the complete opposite. This reproduction of stereotypical young Black America –no matter how interwoven the sensitivities– does not remind me how “human” Oscar was. The bullet placed in his back by a maladroit public servant reminds me how human Oscar Grant was.
In that need for Coogler to prioritize the relationship between Oscar and Tatiana, he walks away with a winner here. And sure, even in that, we have to be a bit lenient while sitting through a scene that plays on the “fruit” in “Fruitvale”, the “Fruit” in the banner above the daycare center that Tatiana attends, and the “Fruit” in the “Fruitroll” that Oscar Grant secretly gives his “fruit”. This along with what has to be an homage to John Singleton’s slow motion edit of Rickey being shot when Oscar is racing Tatiana to the car in what also happens to be her last time being picked up from daycare by her father.
Octavia Spencer captured the disappointment of a mother visiting her son in prison and witnessing his lack of change. This is a conversation that never reaches the population without a misdirection such as in “Jason’s Lyric” between Joshua and Gloria, or even worse, in “The Wire” between D’Angelo and Brianna. However, I did want Octavia to give me another Oscar nominated performance with her lines begging to hug Oscar outside of his emergency room after finding out he had not made it through. The lack of a convincing depiction here made me wish Coogler had just done a documentary.
In summation, “Fruitvale Station” is definitely a much needed movie, especially during these times of crisis. My criticism is more a question of device than topic. At the end of the hour, it is still a movie, and regardless of the social symbols discussed, I will treat it as film art. But, because of the social symbols, and this being added alongside the cultural artifacts used to immortalize the discussion, I do feel compelled to write that I wish Ryan would have chosen one of the models and left the poetic devices for the novelists. That being written, I hope to see more from Coogler, along with more cinematic representations of Oscar.