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The Best Film About Race in Years

Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Early New Year’s Day in 2009, a 22-year-old unarmed black man was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer. Oscar Grant, a Bay Area native who had ridden the train into San Francisco with his girlfriend to see the fireworks, became something of a folk hero in the aftermath of his death; other revelers had caught cellphone footage of his murder, and the video went viral. Riots across northern California followed.

The injustice of this story is so glaring, you might expect Fruitvale Station—the new film that depicts the hours surrounding the event—to turn it into an outsize parable, along the lines of the Oscar-winning Crash, or last year’s hyperbolic Django Unchained. Hollywood learned long ago that movies about race rake in the big bucks, and the critical acclaim, when they fan our indignation, and then soothe it with a pat finale.

But Fruitvale eschews both the explicit righteousness and the mandated silver lining that drive so many other films about race. Its boldest move is the fundamental way the movie is put together. It has become expected, in mainstream movies about race and class in America, that some young person who’s been on the periphery of the film is needlessly killed, and that this violence jolts the protagonist toward some earnest realization—for examples, look anywhere from Step Up to The Blind SideBut Fruitvale is centered on the character who dies, and the power of this choice exposes Hollywood’s cheap moralizing. Because we know how the story will end, and because the movie’s frame is so intimate—it simply follows Oscar—it is difficult to watch, and impossible to look away. Instead of coasting to a rehearsed happy ending, the viewer is riveted by a dread that builds and builds.

The film is structured as an unforgettable diptych, but one that inverts Tinseltown’s heartwarming conventions. In the early scenes, a young man who has made mistakes—cheated on his girlfriend, let down his mother, sold drugs, gone to jail—finds ways to make things right. Oscar’s sweetness occasionally borders on the saccharine (in one gratuitous scene, he brushes his teeth side-by-side with his daughter), but, balanced by moments of harsh self-scrutiny, his over-brimming affection becomes part of a nuanced portrait. And from the moment the arrest begins, the film is blunt and stunning, a completely absorbing, protracted nightmare: the nauseating shots of the arrest scene; the rising volume of the shouting; the image of Oscar’s family receiving bad news in the hospital, the camera angle askew as if with exhaustion and disorientation. Fruitvale ends not by giving us closure, or even solace, but by taking us to the most painful moment of all: when the young daughter who worships Oscar realizes her father is dead.

When Fruitvale does directly invoke race, it is quiet, sometimes funny, and potent in a sidelong way. Oscar’s sister asks him to buy a card for their mother’s birthday, commanding, “Don't get me no fake-ass card with no white people on it”; Oscar promptly goes out and buys a card with the cheesiest illustration of a white family that he can find. The white character who spends the most time on screen is a customer at a market where Oscar used to work. When she comes in asking clueless questions about how to fry fish and Oscar sidles up to help, she gives him the kind of cold shoulder usually reserved for drunks on the bus—until he charms her by calling his grandmother for advice. Racism, in this scene, results in awkwardness rather than harm—but we’re reminded that this is seldom the case when, in a turn that would be too neat if it weren’t so compelling, the young woman is among the horrified onlookers who whip out their phones when Oscar is shot. In the moments afterward, she yells at a cop, “What did you do to him?” It’s not so much an indictment as a statement of her distance from Oscar and his world: She is truly incredulous. 

It’s characteristic of this movie that its most eloquent statement about race doesn’t mention it at all. In a tragically unlucky series of events, it is Oscar’s mother Wanda (played by Octavia Spencer of The Help fame) who urges him to take the train instead of letting his friends drive. That way, she wheedles, they can drink without having to worry. Looking at his body through a window in the hospital, she sobs, “I told him to take the train … I should have just let him drive, but I wanted to keep him safe.” Wanda’s miscalculation is a reminder that the most dangerous thing is often simply to be a young black man in America.

The film’s writer-director, Ryan Coogler, and star, Michael B. Jordan, are not only young, black, and male—they are both almost exactly the age Grant would be today. Coogler grew up in Oakland and was working in San Francisco the night Grant was shot. Jordan is best known for parts in TV series that approach race and the perils of inner city life head-on: He was Wallace, a teenaged drug dealer in The Wire; and Vince Howard, a high school quarterback with a history of delinquency in Friday Night Lights.1 In a recent interview, Jordan recalled the way he felt when he first learned about Grant’s shooting: “It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my brother. It could’ve been one of my friends.” This sense of personal connection is tangible.2

Coogler deserves credit for paying deference to his real subject by putting him at the film’s center, and for resisting the grandiosity that would have made this a far less innovative and powerful movie. In that regard, Grant’s story offered low-hanging fruit: He was killed as America was celebrating the election of its first black president; and the white cop who shot him got a two-year sentence after claiming he mistook his gun for his Taser. (He was let out after a year.) By containing the movie in the span of a day, Coogler excludes the death’s polarizing aftermath. The cop, Johannes Mehserle, barely appears in the film, and is never named. Even the protests are just barely acknowledged before the credits roll.

The result is a movie stripped of anger. The viewer has no opportunity to feel angry, and thereby to put up a shield; the movie’s emotional spectrum stops at anxiety and grief. Even though we know what’s coming, Fruitvale softens us up for the blow, and when it comes, it hurts.

  1. Coogler has said he always imagined Jordan in the part; the actor bears a striking resemblance to Grant

  2. Coogler also tried to ensure accuracy by flying Jordan and his co-star, Melonie Diaz, to California to spend time with Grant’s family and friends.