"Fruitvale Station" Shows the Double-Edged Sword of Race in Film
"Oh, I believe [Martin] played a huge role in his death.[...] When George confronted him, he could have walked away and gone home." —Juror B37, State of Florida vs George Zimmerman
Director Ryan Coogler's new film Fruitvale Station is everywhere. The small-budget drama about the life and death of 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant has become a national hit and, while the film is a sensation, its beauty lies in the level of attention it pays to the life and setting that it captures. The film dwells on the details of Hayward, Oakland, the rumble of BART trains, a mother, a daughter, and the frustrations and concerns of a young man named Oscar Grant.
The film dramatizes the last day of Grant's life, leading up to his tragic demise atop the Fruitvale BART station platform in the early hours of New Years Day 2009, at the hands of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. On a day known for new beginnings, Grant (played powerfully in the film by Michael B. Jordan) struggles with admitting to his girlfriend Sophina that he's been fired from his grocery store job. In Fruitvale Station, the simple, rich details of him picking out a birthday card for his mother, playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter, and remembering his time in prison while watching the water hit the rocks of the bay, become compounded by the eerie presence of his eventual murder. These details complicate the portrait painted of him in the wake of his death; as either a martyr or a troublemaker. What Coogler does here, is portray a human being.
While the film has generally received high praise, I've read a number of reviews and articles that have taken issue with Coogler's attention to the specific details of Grant's character and actions on the last day of his life, one of which was fictionalized and some of which were drawn from real life. These critics in some way see these details as unimportant, and even as possibly manipulative when considered in the larger context of the highly politicized murder and the true story of his life.
It's interesting to consider these concerns in light of the George Zimmerman verdict. The "not guilty" ruling led to a flurry of "what-if" conversations about Trayvon Martin's death: had Martin just ignored Zimmerman, had he called the police instead of responding, had he done this, or avoided that, maybe he would still be alive. It is the details of the case that remind us that beyond what he's come to represent, Martin was a regular human being: he was carrying Skittles and iced tea, he was 17 years old, and he confided in his friend Rachel Jeantel about his fears of being followed. These details counteract rationalizations that Martin was a monster or that he acted out of some premeditated rage. The mundane minutiae bring into view a boy, a son, and person confronted with a situation that was not clear or just.
Some within the media and public have become so consumed with validating or invalidating the existence of people, that they forget that Martin, Grant, and Marissa Alexander were, in fact people. Attempts to humanize them become conflated with didacticism, with being preachy or "having an agenda." But what's interesting is we almost never ask white, male filmmakers the same thing. Do they have an agenda when they present flawed, compassionate characters? Character development is not disputed when it relates to narratives that are assumed and accepted as safe or popular.
Why is a fictitious scene in which Oscar Grant tends to a dying dog so controversial, when so many other films "based on true stories" do the same? This kind of scene fills in the blanks. Films flesh out reality with fiction, elevating emotion and character by dramatizing events and moments. Do we feel we're being lied to in some way? Do we feel we need every moment dictated to us in its truest form so we can believe that Grant didn't deserve to die? Do we need to erase the moments altogether because they don't matter? Like the Martin case, some people want to find something wrong, something to discredit him with in order to justify the endless barrage of media scrutiny that he's underwent since his death.
Yet, if this film wasn't so focused on these details, and on the very clear elements of life, there might be a very different reaction; one that draws further distance between the film and the critics that have these concerns. That film would push away audience and discard drama for a story about the "black man killed by the white cop." Fruitvale Station is not that story, and thankfully so. This is a story about a black man yes, but not about a white cop. In fact, the police officer who pulls the trigger in the film becomes a human being—not just an iconic cop—when the audience sees a shot of his reaction after shooting Grant. It's not a moment of hateful reaction, but one of fear and shock. Whether real-life cop Johannes Mehserle reacted in this way after shooting Grant is unknown, but Coogler does what most dramatists and directors do: he makes a decision to complicate the narrative of "good vs. evil."
This double-edged sword of representation, especially when it relates to characters of color, is something that weighs heavy on the minds of filmmakers of color. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Like Trayvon Martin walking home from the store. No course of action would've been the "right" one. His course of action has now been deemed the cause of his death. So, yes, we need films like Fruitvale Station that focus on the details of human life--of the love and pain of personal growth, and how it is suddenly cut short. We need to see scenes of Grant racing his daughter from her preschool, and ones of him arguing with his girlfriend. We need to see and feel against an overwhelming tide of media and public sentiment that encourages us not to.
Read a great interview with Director Ryan Coogler about the making of Fruitvale Station in Filmmaker Magazine.
Other Bitch coverage of the Trayvon Martin: We Are NOT All Trayvon Martin; The Jury in George Zimmerman's Trial Never Once Discussed Race; Six Perspectives on George Zimmerman's "Not Guilty" Verdict
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