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.