I remember when BART cops murdered Oscar Grant in 2009, because it happened just a few weeks before Obama's inaugural. I'd known that Obama's election didn't eradicate racism or classism, but the stark juxtaposition struck me, as well as the facts of the case. Oscar Grant hadn't been struggling against the police…he was in fact already subdued when he was murdered.
I'd heard they'd made a movie of the incident starring Michael B. Jordan, reconstructing his last 24 hours.
I hadn't planned to see it–I prefer my movies larger than life, full of robots, super-heroes, and massive explosions.[foot]I can’t be serious ALL the time…[/foot] But I decided to go, taking my oldest son with me.
Fruitvale Station (directed by Ryan Coogler) mines some of the same critical terrain John Singleton did twenty years ago with Boyz in the Hood. In fact, Coogler and Singleton have similar backgrounds. However, Fruitvale is head and shoulders above Boyz. Boyz had no real three-dimensional characters. It reproduced many of the same arguments conservatives made (and still make) about black communities, blaming their failure on the lack of two-parent households. Indeed viewers could predict the lives of Boyz' characters with one single piece of information–what type of relationship did they have with their father?
Even though Fruitvale is barely 90 minutes long, we see Grant interact with a number of different characters in his last 24 hours. Through these interactions we see him impulsive and rash, loving, angry, violent, restrained, thoughtful, calculating, scared, intimidating. We see him as father, as lover, as friend, as son, as nephew, as hustler, as prisoner, as banger. We see the consequences of his choices (he gets fired from his job because he's late), we see the constraints on his choices (he can't get a new job in part because of his record).
Grant interacts with five women onscreen–his mother, his girlfriend Sophina, his grandmother, Sophina's mother, and Sophina's sister. Sophina is neither the stereotypical hood-rat (think Regina King's character in Boyz) nor the fiery Latina (think Rosie Perez' character in Do The Right Thing). Through interactions with Grant, their daughter, and his mother, we see her loving, angry, hustling, diligent, responsible, fearful, anxious. Grant's mother is depicted in similar ways. We see the toll Grant's incarceration took on his mother. We see the everyday struggle she undergoes trying to make ends meet. But even when she brings everyone together to pray after Grant's been shot–black mothers are often depicted as being prayerful Christians on film–she doesn't feel like a type. The other three female characters get much less screentime but I felt each were relatively well-rounded.
Grant's male friends get the same treatment the three minor female (adult) characters receive. Going back to Boyz again, Ice Cube's Doughboy gets a significant amount of screentime, but he's not fully developed. Grant's friends get far less screentime than Cube…but somehow are rendered far more human. They, like Grant, are constrained. And this has an effect on their choices. But we see them engage in enough activity to understand who they are and to sympathize with them.
Finally, even though it's clear Coogler sympathizes with Grant, he even humanizes the BART cops responsible for Grant's death.
When we talk and write about the desire to see people like us (in my case, black, working/middle class) on film, this is what we're talking about. Recently there's been talk of having a "national conversation on race". We didn't need a "conversation" on race fifteen years ago when Bill Clinton had John Hope Franklin convene it….we don't need it now.
With that said though, we do need films, and tv shows, that depict the lives of young black, latino, and asian-american, men and women, in all of their complexity. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, Fruitvale Station should be required viewing.