Pick of the week: A buzzy new film tackles race in America

"Fruitvale Station" turns the shooting of a black man by a white cop into a rich fable of American life

Topics: Movies, African Americans, African American, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, octavia spencer, Melonie Diaz, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, BART, Oakland, George Zimmerman, Editor's Picks, ,

Pick of the week: A buzzy new film tackles race in AmericaMichael B. Jordan in "Fruitvale Station"

Fruitvale Station is the name of a nondescript commuter rail station in a working-class neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., near the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. (In my teen years I lived not far away, in a more suburban neighborhood up the hill.) It will be remembered for years, perhaps decades, as the place where an unarmed 22-year-old man named Oscar Grant III was shot in the back by a police officer just after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day of 2009. Exactly how and why that happened remains a matter of “Rashomon”-like dispute, which has not been cleared up by contradictory eyewitness testimony and a proliferation of cellphone videos shot by other people in the station. What we know for sure is that a young black man died, for no good or obvious reason, at the hands of a white cop, right in the middle of one of the most purportedly progressive and multicultural communities in the nation, and that the episode can’t be disconnected from the long, painful and tragic history of race in America.

With the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin dominating the news channels — and reminding us yet again that even in the age of a black president, Americans’ perceptions of such incidents are definitely not “post-racial” – Ryan Coogler’s remarkable debut feature “Fruitvale Station” arrives at an opportune moment. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a first-film prize in the Certain Regard competition at Cannes, “Fruitvale Station” is a potent dramatic chronicle of contemporary American life, crackling with energy and possibility, made with the cooperation of Grant’s mother and girlfriend. Built around a subtle and smoldering star performance by Michael B. Jordan and shot on location in Oakland, San Francisco and surrounding communities (including the Fruitvale BART station itself), the film is more concerned with capturing the world Oscar Grant lived in than with delivering a journalistic or documentary analysis of how he died.



Given that “Fruitvale Station” follows the last 24 hours of a likable, feckless and complicated character who we know is going to die, one of the most striking aspects of the film is that it isn’t overwhelmingly dark or even pessimistic. Oscar, at least as we meet him here in the guise of the charismatic Jordan, could almost be the hero of a different kind of African-American indie film, a low-key comedy about a fractious but loving family and a good-natured hustler who is no angel but is making a genuine effort to go straight, at least for today. Based on this film, Coogler – who was himself born in Oakland and grew up in nearby Richmond – belongs on the short list of young black filmmakers who depict African-American life in all kinds of unstereotypical directions, along with Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”), Tanya Hamilton (“Night Catches Us”), Sheldon Candis (“LUV”) and Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”).

In real life, Grant had an apparent history of dealing drugs and had served time in prison. Those issues have no direct relevance to his killing – he was carrying no gun and no drugs when he was shot, and was not intoxicated – but they certainly play into public perceptions, and Coogler doesn’t run away from any of that. Jordan gives us a totally convincing portrayal of the 22-year-old human male, in whom baser instincts and superego are in conflict. He hasn’t been entirely straight recently with his Latina girlfriend Sophina (the fiery and wonderful Melonie Diaz), who correctly suspects that he’s been fooling around, and he realizes barely in time that New Year’s Eve is also the birthday of Wanda, his loving but formidable mother (Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for “The Help”). On one hand, he’s gotten it together to get his GED despite having dropped out of high school; on the other, he hasn’t told either Wanda or Sophina that he’s been fired by the upscale Oakland market where he works for repeated lateness and general unreliability.

In other words, Oscar comes off in “Fruitvale Station” as a young man with an eye for the ladies, an appetite for fun and a general tendency not to follow through on things, neither better nor worse than millions of other guys around America and the world. One of Coogler’s points, as I see the film, is that if race is still a burden for men like Oscar it isn’t one they think about all the time. He doesn’t hesitate to chat up a pretty white girl in the market, even as he’s angling to get his job back, and while she’s got a boyfriend she’s clearly intrigued. (Played by Ahna O’Reilly, she will see him again on the Fruitvale platform, in the minutes before the shooting.) During the New Year’s festivities in downtown San Francisco, Oscar has an almost wistful late-night exchange of manly confidences with a suit-clad white businessman type, who urges him to go ahead and marry Sophina.

It’s as if Coogler were suggesting that the America imagined by Martin Luther King, in which people would be judged by the “content of their character” rather than the color of their skin, can be seen in fragmentary glimpses and is not entirely an illusion. But when it comes to collisions between young black men and white police officers (not to mention self-appointed guardians of the law, like George Zimmerman), it’s safe to say we’ve still got a big problem. Michael B. Jordan, the film’s 26-year-old star, has said he gave up driving a BMW because the combination of a young African-American driver and a fancy European car proved irresistible to cops. Almost any black man you talk to – rich or poor, urban or suburban, from Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge down to the guy on a street corner in West Baltimore – has had one or more nervous-making encounters with police officers. What happened to Oscar Grant and his friends on that train platform was in most respects a routine event, and only became exceptional when BART officer Johannes Mehserle drew his handgun instead of his Taser.

Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” begins with cellphone footage of the melee on the station platform and reaches its climax with a tense, electrifying depiction of the mounting chaos and the escalating tension between hotheaded officers and the outraged young men they were detaining. There’s no question his interpretation is sympathetic to the accounts of Grant’s friends and many other witnesses, and it’s not the only possible interpretation. But in fact, the film is scrupulous about its ambiguity: While the BART cops are presented as abusive and overly aggressive, ramping up the tension unnecessarily, Coogler does not try to answer the question of intention. Maybe a stressed-out young cop suffered a meltdown and shot an unarmed suspect out of panic, and maybe, as Mehserle would later testify and some witnesses suggest, he got confused and made a fatal mistake. (He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served less than a year in prison.)

For Oscar Grant’s loved ones, as for Trayvon Martin’s, the tragedy of their untimely deaths can’t be undone. Those of us who are still here have a responsibility to learn from what happened, and to observe the way that something like the Zimmerman trial opens up fault lines in our society that many of us would prefer to believe no longer exist. “Fruitvale Station” is a document of irreparable grief and paradoxical hopefulness; it launches the careers of two immensely talented young African-American artists and offers the possibility that Oscar Grant’s life, while it was much too short and ended so dreadfully, served a higher purpose in the long arc of history.

“Fruitvale Station” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and opens July 19 in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, with wider release to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...