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Monday, July 29, 2013

Oscar Grant, Witness for Trayvon Martin: "Fruitvale Station" review

by Jennifer Epps

This piece was first published on on July 22, 2013.

Oscar Grant, police shooting victim in Oakland 

George Zimmerman's defense team essentially put Trayvon Martin on trial, so maybe the prosecution should have called Oscar Grant to testify. If it didn't make a difference that Trayvon was dead, the fact that Oscar was dead shouldn't have been an obstacle either -- he might have been especially qualified, since both Oscar and Trayvon were black men gunned down in their prime by those supposedly watching out for public safety.

Fortunately, in the new film Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is essentially a character witness for Trayvon, and for scores of other young black men who've died at the hands of "law enforcement'. Oscar, only 22, was shot on New Year's Eve, 2008, by a BART subway police officer in Northern California. The details of his demise are so extreme they seem like they'd have to be one-of-a-kind: Oscar, an unarmed black subway passenger who was not being violent when the officers decided to arrest him, was shot dead in the back while prone, face-down, on the Fruitvale station platform, in full view of a packed train of witnesses. The defense claimed by white BART cop Johannes Mehserle was that he mistook his gun for a taser. Consequently, he received a sentence of just 2 years -- and served only 11 months.

But behind the specifics of Oscar Grant's horrific tragedy lies the even greater horror and tragedy inherent in the fact that this kind of extra-judicial execution is commonplace. A recent study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that 136 unarmed blacks were shot dead last year by police, security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes. This adds up to an extra-judicial killing of an African-American every 28 hours. The new film doesn't address these stats, but it certainly stems from that kind of awareness.

The fiction feature Fruitvale Station, winner of big prizes at the Sundance and Cannes Festivals, requires a generous supply of Kleenex. Though its simple presentation is elegant and spare, it makes you weep not just for Oscar and his family, or for Trayvon and his, but for the state of America in general. Without preaching or heavy-handedness, with the utmost of subtlety, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler shows convincingly that something is very wrong out there.
Though the genre is character study, this drama is named after the infamous subway station. It isn't titled after Oscar, I suspect, because the socially-urgent point of this carefully researched docudrama is that Oscar didn't die because of anything he did, but because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you're a young, poor, black man in America, it can be the wrong place and wrong time almost anywhere, almost anytime.

Coogler does use some of the actual cell phone camera footage of the incident as an opening prelude, but his focus in the film is on supplying the visuals that have been missing from our consciousness: how Oscar spent his last day alive. He shows us what Oscar valued, what he regretted, and what he hoped for, making sure we get to know Oscar intimately so we can truly mourn for him. The script, which Coogler wrote after perusing the cell phone footage, interviewing the family, and researching Oscar's life and character, depicts Oscar as a loving young father and boyfriend, a considerate son who actually listens to his mom these days, and a likeable family man whose grandmother dotes on him.

Movie still from climax of Fruitvale Station distributed by the Weinstein Company

Oscar, charismatically played with what seems like effortless naturalness by Michael B. Jordan, is a complex person here. He is often joyfully childlike, especially when playing with his 4-year old daughter Tatiana (played by Ariana Neal, a great find) yet he also falls into deep, serious introspection over the course of the day. He does seem to genuinely love his girlfriend Sophina, a feisty and very watchable Melonie Diaz, and he genuinely wants them to have a future together. Yet he also has a penchant to flirt, and he has been caught doing much more. Moreover, he has trouble showing up on time for work, and has lost his job because of it. When the movie starts, he is preparing to sell drugs again to pay the rent.

Fruitvale Station doesn't hide Oscar's prison record, in fact it brings it to the fore by turning it into a long flashback and by showing that Oscar's mother Wanda (a towering Octavia Spencer) was at one point so upset by his repeat convictions -- apparently for dealing -- that she hardened her heart against him for a difficult period of time. Now, he is torn between the life he wants to lead and the life he has led, conflicted and confused but also very close to his siblings, elders, and nuclear family. Part of the message, of course, is that people don't fall into either/or polarities, that just because a black man isn't a genteel scion of accomplishment like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it doesn't mean that he's a vicious incorrigible criminal who threatens the social fabric.

The kind of characterization of Oscar which Coogler and Jordan assemble, with internal contradictions, has the most sterling of pedigrees: Shakespeare was fond of it too. It is also poignant. In the dramatic world of the film, Coogler proposes that this day was different long before the BART train back from San Francisco pulled into the station; Oscar seems to have made a tacit New Year's resolution to straighten up and fly right. And this interpretation is apparently justified -- a Slate article cites  statements by Oscar's loved ones which support the idea that Oscar planned to reform. In filmic terms, it is also supreme irony. The structure of the film is such that Oscar deals with various personal problems over the course of the first two-thirds of the film but reconciles with his girlfriend, celebrates his mom's birthday, and approaches 2009 -- soberly -- with hope for a better life. If you had never seen the headlines, you might be convinced there's about to be a happy ending.

What Coogler has crafted is a strong counter-narrative to the one pushed by so many whites from Middle America, who seize on whatever flaws they can find in the biographies of black men like Oscar and Trayvon. Fruitvale Station is a much-needed rebuttal to the myth of the "super-predator', a racist stereotype which, longtime social justice activist Tom Hayden makes plain in a recent article in The Nation, stems from a national propaganda campaign that dates from the 1980s -- a tainting of certain Americans (in other words, people of color) as so dangerous and bad at their core that society is in an "us or them' situation with them.

In order to continue to hold on to the racism that is so near and dear to them, Zimmerman supporters and, I suspect, Mehserle fans, yearned deeply to find a reason to justify murder. How upset they were at the slightest doubt, at the merest whisper that Trayvon might not be a murderous thug who had it coming. Coogler quietly dispenses with this element of Oscar's story by staking out a clear position on what caused the fight that led to the police being called in: a white man who frequently tormented Oscar back in prison suddenly attacks him on the subway car. This is a significant part of the story Fruitvale Station tells: the only thing that Oscar does that leads to any trouble with the police on Dec. 31, 2008 is that he fights another subway passenger in self-defense.

Eye-witness reports from the crowded and jostled passengers who saw the fight before the train pulled into Fruitvale are contradictory. But according to several witnesses, there was indeed a fight between Oscar and a white man who'd been in prison with him. Coogler changes several names of supporting characters who do wrong in the film, but Slate identifies the alleged pugilist as David Horowitch. (For the record, he denies being in the fight.) The film shows him playing it cool on the train when the police start dragging off the young black men -- thus illustrating how it never even occurred to the cops to look for a white guy.

Trayvon Martin

Self-defense is the million-dollar concept right now, because Zimmerman's attorneys and cheering section have twisted things to try to make us believe Trayvon had no right of self-defense. Yet the negation of that right tends to be a red flag which reveals the underlying imbalance of power. Ask Iraqis whether they had a right of self-defense when the U.S. attacked them; ask Gazans where theirs was under Israel's bombardment. Coogler's film lets us see that Oscar at least ought to have had the right of self-defense.

That crucial prison flashback mid-way through the film is extremely helpful in this area, especially when you think about it afterward. It helps us to realize what Oscar must have gone through while in prison -- he appears beaten up, and refuses to answer his mother's questions about it. When the Horowitch character threatens him in jail (which happens in plain view with guards watching) Oscar responds as if his very survival is at stake. This preps us to understand Oscar's instantaneous transformation when the same guy reappears much later and lunges at him -- how Oscar switches in one breath from holiday relaxation to fierce defense mode.

And earlier in the film, Coogler had included another exchange that also is part of the portrait of Oscar vis-a-vis aggression. So different from media sound bites regarding the Zimmerman trial, this scene illustrates what the concept of de-escalation and "retreat' might really mean. When his former boss tells him he won't give him his job back, Oscar is humiliated and desperate and reacts with an angry, ominous threat. The store manager happens to be Latino, and that moment could easily have become a racially-charged clash or power struggle. But the manager actually likes Oscar, continues to employ his brother, and, probably most important of all, understands where Oscar is coming from. He knows he's just upset. So he doesn't bite. The whole situation is defused, and Oscar calms down.

By contrast, Coogler clearly shows the BART police brutalizing Oscar and his friends from the moment they arrive. The cops seem to be trying to escalate the situation -- perhaps in part to create a cause for arrest. Indeed, Slate attests, witness statements from the subway passengers who watched the BART police's detention of Oscar and his friends affirm that police were hostile and physically abusive to the young black men. There are also witnesses who've testified that Oscar was co-operating with police as they started to arrest him.

Mehserle's excuse as to how he came to shoot Oscar is not even mentioned in Fruitvale Station until the postscript right before the credits -- Coogler doesn't dignify Mehserle's explanation with his attention, and leaves the exact thought process in Mehserle's head up to us to figure out. The depiction of the cacophony on the station platform is from the victim's point-of-view, which pushes the entire audience to imagine themselves on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality in a system where Driving While Black can be suspicious behavior. Coogler takes it one level further, by showing the trauma of Riding the Subway While Black. Sadly, when he began this project he may not have known there would soon be a national case where a 17-year old found guilty of Walking While Black would be retroactively given the death penalty. The film, by examining one specific case and one specific life so vividly, sets a paradigm with which to view many such cases and lives -- following in the footsteps of the Italian neo-realists, who knew that observing the small was a door to the enormous. Indeed, Coogler considers Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief one of his influences.

Movie still of Oscar Grant and daughter in by Weinstein Company

The astute Fruitvale Station is deceptively staid, employing the episodic, random-observations approach that Charles Burnett, renowned filmmaking pioneer from Watts and a 1960's UCLA film school grad, employed to profound effect in his cinema verite-style, classic dramatic feature Killer of Sheep. At the same time, Coogler's film holds a passionately-beating heart beneath its cool exterior. This incredible combination would be an impressive achievement from a seasoned pro, but Coogler just earned his filmmaking MFA from USC in 2011. And unlike so many, many film school grads, he's actually able to resist showing off camera pyrotechnics and fancy edits in his first feature. Instead, he very wisely just lets the actorsact. He recognizes that he has a terrific cast, isn't afraid of them like some directors are, and together they work magic.
Fruitvale Station deserves to have the kind of impact Gus van Sant's Milk did five years ago. That film about the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and his 1978 assassination was honored with eight Academy Award nominations and trophies for Best Actor and Best Original ScreenplayNot only were these plaudits well-deserved artistically, but they were cultural signs of progress for gay rights, and helped, simultaneously, to further advance the cause.

It's worth remembering that Milk's assassin Dan White used a "Twinkie defense" successfully in court -- claiming he ate too many Twinkies, and that the sugar threw off his judgment. In the Oscar Grant case, it was the "Taser defense". The bizarreness of such explanations did not prove to be a deficit, and that seems almost certainly to be because these killers had fan clubs, in the general public and in the courtroom, who were searching for any semblance of an excuse to let them get away with it. Milk's murder was emblematic of a sickness within the culture -- rabid homophobia -- which was part of what made the story so important to revisit. Likewise, Oscar Grant's death and the multitude of tragic stories like his happening in Sanford, Florida and all over America are potent symbols of rampant racism, and it's of great import to the current spirit of activism opposing it that Coogler has made such a fine film affirming the rights of Oscar and his peers.

Fruitvale Station has the high quality, originality, topicality, fresh faces, and support of the awards-savvy Weinstein Brothers to make it a strong contender for a bunch of Academy Awards for its acting, writing, and directing (the media will love the cute headlines about Oscars for Oscar). It also stands a good chance of being embraced as an inspiration and an organizing tool by a burgeoning movement -- there have been street demonstrations every day since the Zimmerman verdict came out, with protesters often marching miles and miles, and some leaders are calling for a "new civil rights movement" in the face of the demonization of Trayvon, the rash of Stand Your Ground laws, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the craze of voter I.D. requirements, New York's unconstitutional "stop-and-frisk" policy, and California prisons' human rights violations. Certainly the film would be an excellent consciousness-raiser for people of all races, and a great conversation-starter.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is a thread running through it which suggests that things really don't have to be this way. Oscar charms a young white woman he spots at a meat counter by calling up his grandma to give her a recipe; one of Oscar's longtime drug customers is a friendly Asian tough guy (which may be a conscious counterweight to the historical animosity between blacks and Koreans evident in the 1992 L.A. uprising); an immigrant shopkeeper kindly unlocks his store after hours to the youths' girlfriends; and Oscar and a white father-to-be meet for the first time on the street in San Francisco and end up bonding briefly over women, love, and how having your own family can change your life. Even more powerfully, on the train, the New Year's Eve revelers jammed in together start dancing to the music someone has brought. They are strangers, they are different races and even different sexual orientations, but they celebrate the coming of another year in a fleeting moment where the most obvious thing about them is their common humanity.

By shining a warm but very clear light on a life snatched away too soon, on a community so often overlooked or misrepresented, Coogler has demonstrated how rare it is for movies to actually be about real people and about the real, important things going on in America. Fruitvale Station shames Hollywood by setting a good example.



Some other recent cases of police killing unarmed people of color:

Alesia Thomas

-- the LAPD physically abused this 35-year old black woman last year while arresting her for sending her children to a police station; she died in their custody and they have refused to release video of the incident.

Kenneth Chamberlain
--this 68-year old African-American heart patient was shot dead in 2011 inside his own home in White Plains, N.Y. when the police responded to an automatic medical alarm.

Manuel Diaz
--this 25-year-old Latino was shot from behind while fleeing police in Anaheim, CA. One shot hit him in the buttocks and he fell; while down he was shot in the head.

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