Last Day of a Young Black Man
Three hours before the advance screening of Fruitvale Station I attended in Chicago, a line of eager fans snaked through the Cineplex. Many were dressed up, hair done right, faces beat. Writer and director Ryan Coogler and stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan were on hand for a talkback after the screening. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, introducing the actors and the drama, which won the 2013 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, referred to the movie’s subject matter as “Trayvon Martin in real time” and led a vigorous call-and-response.
There was a charge in the air, like the one I felt a month earlier at a crowded screening of the romantic comedy Peeples, written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism. During both screenings, attended by predominantly black audiences, the crowd laughed, nodded in the darkness, and, when each movie finished, offered sighs of contentment and effusive praise. At the end of Fruitvale Station, there were also tears.
Contemporary black film is something of a cultural desert, with little water to be found. When movies by a promising black writer-director, like Fruitvale Station—or even Peeples—premiere, black audiences wonder if finally their thirst might be quenched. Or maybe it’s just me. I am real damn thirsty. Broadly speaking, if contemporary black cinema were divided into categories, we’d have raunchy comedies like Soul Plane, the feel-good family films frequented by Eddie Murphy and Ice Cube, the awareness-raising films that tackle major race-related issues, and, of course, the work of Tyler Perry, a hideous genre unto itself. Most black movies, for better or worse, carry a burden of expectation, having to be everything to everyone because we have so little to choose from.
Suffice it to say, a movie about a notorious incident of police brutality like Fruitvale Station enters an already-fraught conversation. On New Year’s Day in 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle, working at the BART station in Oakland’s heavily Latino Fruitvale district, shot Oscar Grant, a young black man returning to Oakland after celebrating with friends in San Francisco, in the back. Earlier that night, BART police had responded to reports of a fight by removing Grant and several of his friends from the train. Accounts of what happened next differ, but matters escalated quickly.
Bystanders took a number of videos and images of the incident, and soon these artifacts of Grant’s death went viral. Oakland residents held a vigil and rioted, releasing a long-simmering rage over the plight of young black men in the city. Protests, some violent, would continue for more than a year. Four years later, digital traces of Grant’s death linger across the Internet, continuing to bear witness.
Fruitvale Station begins with Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) talking about their New Year’s resolutions. Then the film jumps to 2:15 A.M. in the nearly empty station. Oscar and a group of his friends are seated on the ground. Officers surround them, both the young men and the police shouting. The footage, from a cell phone, is shaky and grainy, but there is no ambiguity about what is taking place.
The rest of the movie chronicles the events leading up to that moment. Oscar is shown as a charming young man with a troubled past who is finally on the right path. After two stints in prison for drug dealing, he is working to reconnect with Sophina. He dotingly parents his daughter, Tatiana, and strives to be a good son to his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). A movie about limited options for young inner-city black men, Fruitvale also explores the multiple identities many of these men must adopt. Oscar is a master of code-switching—the man he is with his mother is different from the man he is with his girlfriend and child, with his friends, and in prison. As director Coogler, who is from the Bay Area, notes, “Often times you’ve got to be different people just to stay alive.”
When Oscar picks Tatiana up from day care, they race back to the car, their bodies so full of joy it’s like they’re trying to outrun the feeling. Actor Michael B. Jordan, best known as Wallace, the 16-year-old dealer from The Wire, and Vince, the high-school quarterback from Friday Night Lights, expresses that joy from his face to the kick of his heels. In scenes with Diaz, Jordan brings out the raw appeal of a young man in his prime—slow drawls, sexy smiles, toned body. He also expresses openness and vulnerability when he confesses to Sophina that he has lost his job and when, in prison, he begs his mother not to leave him alone.
As Wanda, Octavia Spencer is the movie’s moral center. She embodies nurturing, tough love and the small ways a mother never lets go. She chides Oscar for driving and talking on his cell phone, urging him to take the train home so he doesn’t drink and drive. In a powerful flashback, Wanda visits Oscar in prison. He’s in his uniform, thrilled to see a familiar face. Wanda is loving but weary, trying to hang on to what normalcy she can. During her visit, Oscar gets drawn into a verbal altercation with another inmate, revealing the aggressive, defiant man he can be when pushed. Wanda tries to calm him. But it’s too much, how he has to straddle two worlds, and when he sits back down his body is coiled with frustration. Wanda tells Oscar she won’t be coming back to see him. Spencer’s handling of the moment, with quiet control and resolve and no hysterics, is heartbreaking.
There are moments of levity, like when Oscar has to buy a birthday card on behalf of his sister. Despite the sister’s express instructions not to, he gets a card with white people on the front. Such moments not only humanize Oscar, they allow the audience to laugh, to exhale. We need that.
Director Coogler had only the length of a movie—90 minutes, in this case—to give us a sense of who Oscar Grant was, someone to mourn when the end came. He conducted extensive research on Grant’s whereabouts on that final day and overcame the family’s apprehension to work closely with them. In a prophetic scene, Oscar comforts a bleeding dog hit by a car, whispering kind words so the animal won’t die alone. When Oscar is at the grocery store buying crab for his mother, a young woman at the butcher counter wants to fry fish but is unsure how. Oscar gets his Grandma Bonnie on the phone to school her. On the streets of San Francisco after midnight, surrounded by revelers, Oscar and his friends convince a storeowner closing shop to let their girlfriends, and the pregnant wife of a couple they don’t know, use the restroom. The men enjoy the camaraderie of strangers, and we see Oscar plan for a future he will not be part of.
At times, Coogler’s choices verge on the sentimental, if not manipulative. His investment in Grant’s story is palpable. There are indulgent directorial choices, like the superimposing of text messages and phone numbers on the screen when Oscar is using his cellphone. It is a testament to the movie’s excellence that the flaws are in the details.
Fruitvale Station could have been an angry movie, but Coogler has crafted an intimate, at times exuberant portrait. This was a deliberate choice, co-star Octavia Spencer said during the question-and-answer session after the screening: “Anger without action leads to riots. I didn’t know if that was the best emotion to associate with this film.” Still, it is hard to consider what made the movie possible without surrendering to some amount of rage.
As Coogler notes, “Grant’s murder came at a time where people in Oakland were optimistic about race.” In one night, that optimism was taken away. Oakland, the eighth-largest city in California, is a particularly difficult place for young black men. According to a June 2011 report from the Oakland Unified School District on African-American Male Achievement, “In Oakland, African American male students have the worst outcomes of any demographic group, despite improvements in some areas in recent years.”
The world beyond the school system provides little statistical solace. According to the NAACP, nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million Americans in prison are African American. Further racial disparities persist in the length of sentencing, and the effect of incarceration after release. The institutional biases make it difficult to envision how young black men can succeed. Or as Oscar seems to say in the movie, feeling defeated by a series of failures, “I’m tired. Thought I could start over fresh but shit ain’t working out.”
Year after year, we discuss these statistics and the impossibility of them. Year after year, we tell the same stories, using these statistics, to show how shit ain’t working out. Accurately conceiving of what young black men face when we talk about them as numbers, though, is difficult. Some statistics loom so pervasively they have become myths. For example, a commonly recited “fact” is that more black men end up in jail than attend college. Ivory A. Toldson, a professor at Howard University, refutes this statement, noting in a series on black education for The Root that “today there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and the best research evidence suggests that the line was never true to begin with.” Behind the statistics for black men in Oakland and across the United States are men who are being failed by society. These statistics, when offered without any kind of reflection, do little to advance the conversation, and when they go unquestioned, as Toldson suggests, they distort the conversation.
It is in this context that Fruitvale Station works compellingly to treat Oscar Grant as a man. Forced to decide whether to sell drugs to support his family, Oscar makes what we hope is the right choice, throwing a large quantity of marijuana into the bay. He tries to get his job back at a local grocer after being fired. Not only are his options drastically limited, his learning curve is steep. There is little room for error. For some young black men, there is no room for error at all.
Depicting this reality was Coogler’s primary aim because, he says, “we struggle with a mass loss of life [in the Bay Area], and the root of these issues is a demonization of young black men.” Contemporary black cinema will not end the demonization of young black men, but a movie like Fruitvale Station offers us a necessary insight into the consequences.
When black movies fail at the box office, too often it becomes a race to see who will first say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Take the case of Red Tails, produced by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway, which only earned a bit less than $50 million domestically.
In interviews at the time of the film’s release, Lucas, having put his own money behind the project to ensure it would receive a wide launch, essentially insisted the movie-going public bore a responsibility to see the movie. In an interview with USA Today, Lucas said, “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk (with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions). I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that (lower-budget) mold.” Self-important and grandiose as his statement is, Lucas also gets at a frustrating truth. Each time a black movie is made, it has to succeed or risk fallout for the movies that follow. Fruitvale Station bodes well, though, having grossed $377,285 with a $53,898 per screen average in its opening weekend; the quality of the movie offers hope that a broader range of black movies might be made and that we will see black people portrayed in more nuanced ways.
Movies matter. But still, there is this painful reality. Each time Oscar says goodbye to his girlfriend or family in Fruitvale Station, he adds, “I love you.” Coogler remarked that many young men in the inner city do this, because “every time we leave the house, we know we might not make it back.” Such is their uncanny burden. There is also this. Oscar Grant was 22 years old when he was murdered. Johannes Mehserle, after serving just one year of a two-year sentence, was released from prison on June 13, 2011.
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