Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 July 2013

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is based upon the story of Oscar Grant, who was shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit police on New Year's Day 2009, Fruitvale explores New Year's Eve in the life of the 22-year-old man as he takes care of his daughter, tries to get his job back, and celebrates his mother's birthday.

The film isn't perfect. It opens with cell-phone-camera footage of the violence, and so it is clear from the movie's beginning that the story is headed in a terrible direction. At times, then, the movie feels like a done deal, as though we're wasting our time watching this man live his life, discuss his dreams with his girlfriend, help a customer at Trader Joe's learn how to fry fish, pet a stray dog. It's all going to end in violence, we know, and so I found myself, more than once, impatient with Coogler's movie.

But this is the point, actually. Oscar Grant is just going about his day. His day is difficult and filled with numerous minor conundrums. He has a lot on his mind and the stakes are high, but Oscar doesn't know that he will be shot by the police. He's just trying to figure out how to help his sister with her rent and still pay his own. If we are impatient with him it is because we do not value his troubles, these difficulties which really make up his life. The police who shot him, too, did not value this young man's life.

The performances in Fruitvale Station are excellent, particularly Michael B. Jordan's as Oscar. It is a charming, sensitive portrayal of a man trying to make all of the ends meet up. (I loved Jordan as Wallace in The Wire – and as the popular kid Steve in Chronicle – and I loved him again in this.)

Fruitvale is, finally, about the value that our society puts on the lives of young black men, the ways in which we have created a society that arrests them, imprisons them, keeps them from their families, and even kills them. And the thing that ought really to shock us about the true events of Fruitvale Station is that events like these – where actual police or transit police or security guards or neighborhood watchmen shoot our kids simply because they are black – are nowhere near isolated. If Oscar Grant's case sparked protests and calls for justice (there wasn't any, in case you hadn't heard of the case), we ought to remember that police violence against people of color both in prison and outside of it is normal for how our society works. And if the police (or a neighborhood watchman) can go free after shooting an unarmed young black man, it is because we as a society do not value black life and because we as a society have let them know that they should expect to get away with it.

What Fruitvale Station takes great pains to detail is exactly the opposite of this. Fruitvale shows us the beauty of Oscar's life, the different ways his family and his friends show their affection for him, the care he shows for others, and the fun he has with his girlfriend and even the strangers he meets during the day. This is a life with immense value, and Coogler's film is a powerful, exciting, tense portrait of the way our culture disregards lives such as his simply because those lives are lived by working-class black men.