I just came from seeing Fruitvale Station. The film offers a sensitive portrayal of the last day in 22-year-old Bay area resident Oscar Grant’s life. Having apprehended Grant and several other black and brown skinned passengers after a scuffle on a BART train, Police Officer Johannes Mehserle’s fatally shot Grant, claiming he mistook his own gun for his taser. Contrary to Kyla Smith’s troubling review of Fruitvale Station, I thought Ryan Coogler’s debut film was quite well done. Smith essentially charges Coogler with being manipulative by making Grant appear warmer and gentler than his criminal past suggests. This troubling assessment ignores Coogler’s obvious efforts to create a black male character whose likely and unsurprising end was not matched by a depiction of his assumed depravity. Grant, who Michael B. Jones masterfully plays, has flaws and the film engages them. While Smith acknowledges Coogler’s attempt to complicate Grant through an engagement with his former incarceration, former infidelity, and his failure to take full responsibility for himself, which accounts for him being unemployed, Smith contends that the film “tries to fit a halo on its subject, seemingly to play up the audiences sympathies.” As evidence, Smith points to every detail of Grant’s petty criminal past expunged from the film’s record. Let’s say that these additional details were added to the script, would Smith expect audiences to conclude that Officer Mehserle was justified in slaying an unarmed man? Smith flatly denies any affirmative conclusion drawn from this question, but he does question the integrity of pleading for justice on Grant’s behalf if doing so depends on the charge that Officer Mehserle’s actions demonstrate racism. In Smith’s estimation, even if Mehserle were racist, it would be irrational for him to carry out his agenda “in front of dozens of people.” Racism, however, doesn’t depend on reason or logic, it works through power, history, custom, and tradition. Sure, there have been efforts to rationalize and justify white supremacy but such attempts are never valid. Officer Mehserle had a much greater understanding of the nation’s low and contemptuous regard for black American life than Smith admits. Officer Mehserle understood that killing a black man wouldn’t cost him very much–and it didn’t: Mehserle spent 11 months of a two year prison sentence for his crime. And like him, George Zimmerman is chillin’…right alongside the four officers acquitted for killing Amadou Diallo and Officer Michael Carey who killed Sean Bell on the morning of his wedding.
Fruitvale Station pays homage to Oscar Grant. The film shows him as a father, a brother, a son, a partner, a friend. The film also reminds me of Hank Willis Thomas’s tribute to his 27-year-old cousin Songha Willis who was shot on February 2, 2000 in the parking lot of a Philadelphia nightclub. In Pitch Blackness, Thomas uses family photographs of Songha in an effort to restore his humanity and with it, the weight and significance of his loss. Rather than allow his cousin to remain a statistic reflecting an expected outcome for black American males, Willis Thomas sought to resurrect the meaningfulness of his cousin’s life through the many photographs of him with people who loved and cared for him. This video features Willis Thomas discussing his work and
how art helped him process his sadness and grief in the wake of his cousin’s murder.
Fruitvale Station shows great sensitivity to the importance of offering audiences an example of black American humanity. Smith’s critique of the film highlights the carelessness with which black American life is often read. From this point of view, Oscar Grant was too good to be true. According to Smith, Coogler’s Oscar Grant has too much humanity and so is a lie; he isn’t thugged out enough. His is an unmerciful view.
You should check out the film, it will piss you off for all the right reasons.