Fruitvale Station is Sadly Fruitless

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It was a movie worth making and a movie filled with stirring performances, but a tremendous absence of context blended with an apparent need to appease White audiences leaves Fruitvale Station largely fruitless… by Jared A. Ball

 “I was worried about the police… Call it a father’s intuition… In the past, you could hang a black man from a tree and nothing would happen.  Now, the same thing happened to Oscar Grant. It’s the same mentality. It hasn’t changed.  Why is it always a white officer killing a black or brown youth with the excuse that the victim was reaching for a gun or it was an accident? I’m not speaking badly about whites or police. I’m speaking badly about this racist system that’s still in place.”   – Jack Bryson

“Fruitvale Station doesn’t have anything shattering to say about the case, or the man, really. But it may well leave you shattered by his story.”  – NPR

“I don’t hate police brutality.  I hate the police.” – Frank Wilderson

 

It was a movie worth making and a movie filled with stirring performances, but a tremendous absence of context blended with an apparent need to appease White audiences leaves Fruitvale Station largely fruitless.

I am rarely in agreement with what comes from NPR but their point about the film having nothing to say about the case even as it leaves you “shattered” is unfortunately right on point.  The pain and righteous anger Ryan Coogler knows his film conjures is carefully preempted for nearly 3/4 of the film before its culminating, inevitable end.  Reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X so much of Fruitvale details Oscar Grant’s life leaving no room for important political contexts or emotions to be engaged.  By the time we get to the real deal the credits are rolling.  Spike gave us none of Malcolm’s real politics, organizational development and all that made him the threat to the state he was and Coogler’s film softens or omits much of the historical, legal and racial elements of Grant’s life and death.

On our way in to the film a friend of mine asked two Black attendees of a previous screening on their way out what they thought of the film.  One said, “the film humanizes {Grant}… but the last 30 minutes will make you mad.”  Indeed. In fact, this was the goal, to humanize someone – or someones – who apparently need humanizing.  But who do not already accept the humanity of Oscar Grant(s)? Google “Ryan Coogler humanize”  and you might get some idea of how important this is.  The success of the film is intimately connected to its design, of its conscious attempt to make the sub-human human to those who permanently refuse the humanity of Black people.  Those who already accept that humanity, those most angered by Grant’s killing and the subsequent trial of the killer, are  carefully removed.  The historical and contemporary context in which Black life is so permanently dehumanized is removed.  It is now safe to tell the story.

And White (liberal) audiences know it.  The Atlantic Wire, “One might expect this film to be loud, angry, a polemic: the real-life incident sparked riots in the Bay Area and has undeniable connections to the more recent killing of Trayvon Martin. But for the film’s 27-year-old writer-director, Ryan Coogler, the film is simply an endeavor to humanize Oscar.”  Another favorite example, “What makes “Fruitvale Station” so impressive is that Coogler, rather than taking the demonizing approach to a story that could easily have slid into a racial diatribe, opts for a humanizing one. The film has a documentary feel to it as if we’re really watching Grant’s life unfold during the course of one day, filled with mundane chores and family obligations. That we know what’s going to happen to him gives you an uneasy feeling throughout. It’s as if you’re watching a tragedy where you know the ending but keep hoping that it’s going turn out differently” (emphasis mine).

As Coogler says himself, “That was my goal… I wanted to bring audiences close to him. So many people in this country don’t have interactions with people like this. Film is the only window to certain communities, or to certain types of people. I’m like that. Some of my favorite films are about places that I’ve never been, or about communities that I’ve never experienced.”

But it is this exchange that I think is most telling:

Q: “The officer who shot Oscar claims that he was reaching for his taser. What do you think happened?

A: I wasn’t interested in that, for the film.

Q: You’ve had to have thought about it.

A: Only one person knows that. I think it’s pointless to ask that question, do you know what I mean? Only one person knows what really happened and that’s the one who did it. You can research the case and what was said — there are arguments on both sides. All I was interested in was the film” (emphasis mine).

This is not about Coogler, this is not a condemnation of him at all.  This is, however, about what makes art acceptable.  Coogler wants to avoid the question, because the intent of the officer, the intent of the institution of a policing apparatus, is indeed the point.  This is what got the film’s erased protesters into the streets.  This is where so much anger rests and gets at the crux of many important questions.  What is the relationship of the state to Black people? What function do police serve? Why are Black people killed by police Every 28 Hours?  But these are the questions that keep White people, liberals and the Black bourgeoisie at home.

Most of the film we see Grant’s last day and get glimpses into his apparent drug dealing semi-gang/crew/click beefs.  We see his weed smoking, his unmarried fatherhood, hear about his cheating and we see him lose his job for consistently being late to work.  We see Grant struggling to improve, be a better father, boyfriend, son, and citizen – though we of course are never encouraged to see the oxymoron in “Black citizen.”

We also, in important foreshadowing, see his beyond the ordinary friendliness to Whites.  Repeatedly we see Grant going out of his way to be kind to White people (and here is Coogler’s brief explanation of this); helping them buy fish, get them safely to bathrooms, sharing New Year’s eve countdown moments, etc. and in such a way as to almost too obviously begging for White audiences (and bougie Black ones too) to embrace Grant so there is enough empathy for the finale.  But not too much.

Grant’s overtures to Whites are, of course, more than balanced by his struggle for transcendence.  So much so that it is at the very moment that the White girl from the fish shop recognizes Grant on the train and happily calls to him that his gang-like nemesis appears, the fight begins giving audiences the necessary precipitating act that legitimizes the eventual presence of killer “fake” cops.  The final scenes become the cinematic parallel to the recent justifications surrounding Trayvon Martin who was deemed guilty of defending himself against an armed fake cop assailant with concrete thereby justifying his eventual murder. The truncating of events in Fruitvale to fit the final moments of a film packed with “humanizing” Grant leaves the impression that the presence of killer fake cops was justified by the preceding behavior of the “guilty” victim.  But this is not just a matter of timing.

Fruitvale’s final scenes importantly weaken what may have been understood to be a potentially overwhelming movie-going experience.  First, as said, the film leaves little time for Grant’s killing and its aftermath.  Secondly, the presence of the police is made legitimate by the fight on the train.  Lastly, because the film follows trial testimony but not the trial itself the racism of the cops is left cinematically abbreviated and justified.  The film’s unnamed cop (Tony Pirone in real life) is depicted as trial accounts state, that he only called Grant a “bitch ass nigger” in response to Grant’s prior use of the term (which seems eerily similar to the defense in the George Zimmerman trial accused Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jenteal of racism for having introduced “crazy ass cracker” into the pattern of events).

However, the pattern of anti-Black policing and legal abuse cannot be included, both by the demands of time and race/class solidarity.  So other racial slurs used that night, or the fact that the depicted recalcitrant killer fake cop fled the state and had to be caught and brought back to trial, or the trial that was moved three times to find a judge that did not believe Johannes Mehserle wanted to kill Grant, or the conscious effort of those involved to link Grant’s killing to the so many other victims of police violence does not come out in this film.  All viewers will see is that the unnamed (Mehserle) got only 11 months in prison for killing Oscar Grant.

Again, by following trial accounts of the killing but not the trial itself also means that viewers are not likely to know that the cops continued to beat on the surviving young men for a couple of hours, that they were seen high-fiving one another and flexing their muscles after shooting Grant and that when asked to call for medical help the cops said no.  Audiences are left with the mournful images of regretful cops.

What ultimately makes this film so appealing, digestible, tolerable, is its willingness to do just what the filmmaker says he wants from the film, and what his target audiences want as well, a film that will attempt to prove the humanity of the permanently sub-humanized Oscar Grant.  This fully reveals the target audience of this film, its mainstream reception, or why film mogul Harvey Weinstein “scooped” it up at the Sundance film festival.  This is why it would not have worked to show the aftermath of the trial and the outrage among those who already accept the humanity of all Oscar Grants.  It was precisely their love of him and those like him that propelled the outcry and propels it still.

The film is well made, well acted and delivers a powerful punch.  But politically, even historically, Fruitvale is sadly fruitless.

For more please see our recent interview with veteran community journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga who covered closely the killing of Oscar Grant and subsequent trial of his killer Johannes Mehserle and joined us to discuss her forthcoming book No Doubt The Murder of Oscar Grant.

*I finished putting these thoughts together after our recent discussion about the film with Rahiel Tesfarmariam and Dr. Lester Spence.

10 Responses to “Fruitvale Station is Sadly Fruitless

  • i sure wish I could read this article. but the type is so damn light it’s giving me a headache….

    liked where it was going tho.

  • Sorry Tamika, not much i can actually do about it. You can always copy the text to Word/Pages and read it there in any format you like.

  • I would love for you review my film here is the trailer and I have a private link if you are willing to watch the whole film http://youtu.be/wWdb4N3U8q0

  • I find Jared Ball’s critique understandable but incomplete. In the call and response between our cultures and our efforts to speak from and to them, much depends on the audiences that respond to the film’s call. I agree with Ball that “Fruitvale Station” tries to “humanize” Oscar Grant. In a racial justice context, that understandably raises Ball’s question of why the audience doesn’t already see Grant as a fully-rounded, complex human being with strong capacities for good.
    No doubt Ball could answer his own question as well as anyone else: the white supremacy that the audience has inhaled from birth, for one thing; the chasm between the haves and the have-nots that has been ever-widening since the late 1970s, for another. Can the artist afford to pretend he is living in Wonderland and make a film for the citizens of that place instead of the United States circa 2013? That questions points to still larger ones of the purpose of art, though I will not linger among what Ralph Ellison rightly dismisses as “the consolations of philosophy.” For me, generally speaking, I judge artistic expressions on an aesthetic, narrative level—does this work?—but I cannot read them outside of my social and political visions, which always badger me to explain what this art is doing to mend the broken world and how well it is doing that.
    In terms of the battle against white supremacy, the American audience remains far from escaping the shadow of the Black-Beast-Rapist. This monster never appeared on the plantation, among the old folks at home. (How could the Confederates have marched off to war, leaving all those white women and children in the care of the Beast? Old Black Joe and Mammy took good care of them, at least until the federal lines came close enough for every black face on the place to flee.) Instead, the Black-Beast-Rapist was a poisonous late-19th-century confection of the political project of white supremacy, which justified its political violence and electoral fraud by this compelling slander. Southern elites deployed the Beast as a whip to lash non-elite whites into voting or violence on behalf of their betters and against their own interests, placing their race and notions of manhood above their class interests.
    Other depredations swiftly followed—lynching, Jim Crow laws, separate and unequal schooling, and the other elements of the American racial caste system. In the 1980s, a racially-fueled conservatism dusted off and repainted the Beast to support draconian anti-drug and minimum sentencing laws, and to push an enforcement that continues to target and to ravage African American communities; gutless liberals have mostly played along. Poison strands of that asbestos, unfortunately, infect the very air we breathe, regardless of our racial identify. Just as the eye creates color, internalized white supremacy colors our understanding of the world.
    Coogler knows that his white audiences need to defang that Beast and step out of its ugly shadow in order to see Oscar Grant clearly. But he does not tell lies to make it happen. People help fry each other’s fish all the time, every day. Were it not for Fox News and many other cultural projects of white supremacy, Americans might trust their own experiences instead of the shadows in their heads. That Coogler chooses to include such a moment is tactical, to be sure, but I did not find it forced. I did think the “What about you, Daddy?” moment at Tatiana Grant’s bedtime a few hours before the police killed her father was a little over the top. That was special pleading in racial or political terms, though, but instead just a little maudlin and heavy-handed. Could it have happened that way? Yes. Did it? Doubtful. But it’s a small point.
    The cinematic Oscar Grant’s “extraordinary friendliness towards whites,” which did not keep him from menacing his former boss, extended to African Americans and others. He is a well-meaning but not saintly character. In his essence, he is a good man. When nothing is at stake and respect is mutual, he is warm-hearted. He is capable of sharp dealings and deceit. When insulted or treated in a manner that he considers unfair, he can be dangerous. White people can go either way for this particular Oscar Grant.
    But the Grant family gathering is a black thing. His male relatives root for the Steelers because the team has a black coach whom they note, in an Ellisonian “tragic-comic” blues moment, “even has a black wife!” Their dinner blessing will seem oddly heartfelt to urbane white people; rural whites, if they see this film, will probably feel more at home in the moment. It foreshadows the family’s later prayers for their mortally-wounded Oscar as his life bleeds away. It seemed to me that Coogler tried to balance his presentation in order to get and keep as much of his audience onto the train as possible.

    The same goes for the question of class. Much of the audience for a film of this kind is not from the socioeconomic world of the people depicted. I am reminded of another highly-regarded film, “The Wrestler,” that unveiled a cast of characters virtually none of whom were middle-class, refreshingly so. I remember suddenly being struck that “The Wrestler” depicted the lives of poor people not because they were poor, but because they were people, demanding that we see them in full, not in deprivation drag. Coogler’s chore is even harder because he is addressing race, which is something that happens between us, not just “humanizing” African American lives themselves but mapping the no man’s land between the boundaries, where shadows can kill. It doesn’t help that half his audience holds in their minds an image of impoverished urban African Americans that makes them afraid: part “Birth of a Nation,” part gangsta-imagine-nation, part Fox-News “wilding.” But Coogler stands up straight and insists that the audience do the same, no exceptions, no white or middle-class get-out-of-jail free cards. For every scene that plays to white or bourgie uneasiness, there are many others that do nothing of the kind: prison, drugs, petty crime, black and black-and-brown solidarity. It’s a package, like the rest of us.

    Ball, who makes plain his passion for justice, faults Coogler for trying to speak across the barriers and boundaries, not just to the people who are already totally identified with or at least sympathetic to the disinherited, but also to those whose largely unconscious white supremacy is a huge part of the problem. It may be tempting to pick at the ungainly cultural politics of the attempt but, in the end, Coogler does far more than simply lose nobly beneath the banner of black solidarity. Instead he seizes a fair amount of cultural ground from which still more bold maneuvers may yet be launched. Speaking of grim blues truth, here’s one even Ball might support: this country is in so much trouble and trouble so deep that we need a hundred more films like this one.

    Every story has to begin and end somewhere. We can’t start with “slowly the earth cooled,” to steal my friend Kantrowitz’s best historian joke, and end with “happily ever after.” Given that “Fruitvale Station” sensibly chooses to focus on one central character, Oscar Grant himself, I don’t know how it could have gone far beyond his death, into the riots that Dr. King called “the language of the unheard,” into the movements for justice that march on today. Coogler saluted those warriors at the end, using documentary footage to follow an older Tatiana, the real one, to a rally at Fruitvale Station. I considered that an admirable gesture.

    My wife and I, who have been passing as white from birth, were the only people that light-skinned in the theater when we saw it last night. What was more disturbing was that the two of us constituted half the audience. I don’t know how many people, black or white, have seen this film, but one solid answer is “not enough.” The suggestion that somehow Coogler has sold out his people or his craft or the movement seems uncharitable and a little off-point, too, at least from my politically-inflected angle of vision. A film that never makes you uncomfortable, even if you’re the target audience, is not showing up for work. “Fruitvale Station” is a thoughtful, imperfect, well-made and well-meaning and ultimately compelling example of the filmmaker’s art. When an African American man in his late twenties produces something this good, and you call it “fruitless,” it’s time to look in Marcus Garvey’s mirror and ask why the disdain, brother, why the disdain?
    Tim Tyson

  • Fruitvale Station: love, matriarchs and murdered black men
    Rahiel Tesfamariam
    July 30
    In 2009, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man out celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends, was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer while laying faced down on the pavement. “Fruitvale Station,” an independent film directed by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan that tells that tragic story in breathtaking ways, is now out in theaters nationwide.
    The film, which has been widely praised for humanizing Grant, powerfully depicts him through a lens rarely seen in mainstream media – through everyday relationships with family members and friends. “Fruitvale Station” shows that Grant was a complex human being who was undoubtedly loved and loving. It’s just that simple, but, yet, so very important.
    It’s in this simplicity that “Fruitvale Station” has the capacity to redeem much of the damage that keeps being done to public perceptions about black men. While the film is honest in its depiction of Grant’s criminal background and struggles with anger, it still manages to push back on the media, courtroom and public demonization of slain black males. It offers a multi-dimensional human depiction rarely – if ever – seen.
    “By the time the credits roll, Oscar Grant has become one of the rarest artifacts in American culture: a three-dimensional portrait of a young black male – a human being,” says Jesse Washington in a powerful AP essay entitled “Black Male Humanity Shown in ‘Fruitvale.” He continues, “Which raises the question: If Grant was a real person, what about all these other young black males rendered as cardboard cutouts by our merciless culture? What other humanity are we missing?”

    When looking at the attire and demeanor of Grant and his friends from afar, they fit the profile of weed-smoking, belligerent thugs. But “Fruitvale Station” offers an intimate look into their world. It’s a window into the life, thinking and emotions of a young black man growing up in a working class community of color. The setting is unique to Oakland California, but the story is all too common.
    Beyond Grant’s machismo and tough exterior rests a scared, gentle soul. His commitment to providing for the women in his life is at the heart of the difficult decisions he has to make about right versus wrong. While selfish and irresponsible at times, Grant is also a deeply vulnerable and compassionate figure. We see this particularly in his interactions with his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) who brings out his childlike, playful side.
    We also see this vulnerability play out in his dealings with the matriarchs in his family – from his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) to his Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears). These women are his anchors in life. Sophina keeps him honest, holds him accountable and brings out his sensual side. Through their relationship, we see his desire to be a protector and provider. His mother Wanda grounds him in prayer and nurtures him through wise words and good food. Her “tough love” approach often haunts him in his actions and decision-making. Then, there’s Grandma Bonnie who keeps him connected to tradition and the family history that proceeds him. Older men are present in Grant’s life but they are mere shadows in comparison to the matriarchs.
    While Grant is a product of his environment, as we all are, he is also the culmination of all these relationships that inform him as a human being, as we all are.
    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ending of “Fruitvale Station” tends to draw tears, pain and anger from viewers. While we all know how the story ends, the film’s masterful telling of Oscar’s story leaves us hoping that the officer who killed him would see everything we see in him. The film also unintentionally picks at wounds still raw and in need of healing from the “not guilty” verdict in the Zimmerman trial.
    It does all of that in a way that cannot easily be shaken off. It does it in a way that will hopefully make us say “no more” and “never again.” No more shedding of innocent blood. Never again will we allow a person’s humanity to be so savagely stripped away from them on our watch. No more. Never again. For Oscar Grant. For Trayvon Martin. For Aiyana Jones. For them all.

Trackbacks & Pings

  • Fruitvale’s Neglect | insurgentLOVEnest :

    […] Ultimately, I wanted to appreciate this film; however, I am struggling now to be able to place it. More storytelling, more nuanced scripting, more interesting structure could have made the story that is both infuriating and deeply gut wrenching, intellectually appealing and critically engaging. Instead, I am left with a goal oriented protagonist who has 24 hours before he is murdered. These 24 hours are filled with active choices and small failures, a nuclear family/ love interest, and a desire to make a better life for himself by bettering his surroundings to the best of his abilities– until the ultimate climax of the film, after which he dies. I believe this is beginning screenwriting 101. A story this important deserves a better telling. I’m not the only one who thinks so. […]

  • imiXwhatilike! | Fruitvale Station w Rahiel Tesfamariam and Dr. Lester Spence :

    […] To read my more complete thoughts on the film click here. Posted in Broadcasts, Radio & Mixtapes, IMIXWHATILIKE! | Tagged fruitvale […]

  • Police Brutality, Mass Media and White Supremacy with Thandisizwe Chimurenga | :

    […] The essay mentioned with which Chimurenga at least somewhat disagreed, Fruitvale Station is Sadly Fruitless. […]

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