Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant
As I sat down to write my review of Fruitvale Station, hundreds of people were marching past my building, drumming, cheering, and chanting, among other things, “Justice for Trayvon.” They could have just as easily been chanting, “Justice for Oscar.” Fruitvale Station is the story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man from Hayward who was killed by a white police officer while being held at a BART station in the early morning of New Year’s Day, 2009. The police officer claimed it was an accident, and he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter; both the killing and the light sentence he received led to both protests and riots in Oakland.
It is an almost absurd coincidence that Fruitvale Station is being released the month George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, an aggressive and paranoid neighborhood watch captain, had shot Martin after stalking him, assuming that a black man in a hoodie in a white neighborhood must be a criminal. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, that Martin was beating him; a jury of six white women agreed. Virtually no black person, nor, it seems, any liberal in America, agreed with the verdict. For some reason, many conservative white people automatically believe Zimmerman’s story.
Fruitvale Station arrives the month the country was thrust into yet another discussion about race and racism and violence; we watched and read and heard people say moving and brilliant and hideous and unforgiveable things about race. I saw the movie just a few hours after President Obama made his improvised speech about the acquittal and its response, in which he said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Grant and Martin’s deaths are different in many ways, but they were both the result of what happens when racist stereotyping of black men is combined with armed incompetents.
As the recent debate about gun control has shown, disarming the ignorant is difficult. And stereotyping, which is what racism needs to flourish, is a complicated thing both to overcome and to combat. For a while, many media-makers – in film, on TV, on stage, in advertising – assumed that presenting the opposite of the negative stereotype would convinced people to give it up. This is how we got The Cosby Show. But this ultimately creates two stereotypes, the old negative one and the new positive one, that of the model minority. And reality is obviously and actually in the mushy gray in-between. Creating complex, complicated, fully realized depictions of minorities is much more likely to lead to long-lasting positive changes in perceptions.
Fruitvale Station is one such depiction. Writer and director Ryan Coogler tells the tragedy of Oscar’s New Year’s Eve, creating a nearly agonizing narrative tension as we watch Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) take his daughter (Ariana Neal) to school, girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) to work, then buy crabs for the birthday of his mother (Octavia Spencer), try to get his job back at the supermarket, decide not to go back to drug-dealing, go to his family’s party, all the while barreling towards that BART station.
We see Oscar try to be a good father, son, and boyfriend, to always do the right thing by every women he meets, all while battling with the impulses that sent him to jail and got him into fights. Coogler’s impeccably structured screenplay creates a very subtle but powerful suspense out of what is basically a Dalloway-ish domestic documentary, and his direction of Jordan, Diaz, Neal, and Spencer elicited empathic performances that should move anyone. By the end of the film, even after knowing what was going to happen the whole time, I was heart-broken, devastated by a movie for the first time in half a decade. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to see this movie to be outraged by the injustice of structural racism, and I doubt the people that should see it will. For some people, the president stating his allegiance to Trayvon Martin was tantamount to inciting a race war; these people are probably not capable of the sympathy that Coogler demands. And that is why we need marching, drumming, and chanting.
Written and Directed Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer
Opens July 26 at your local multiplex