“Fruitvale Station” is more than a case of art imitating life. First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s film is art validating life.
It is the story of the 2009 New Year’s Day murder of an unarmed young black Oakland man at the hands of a transit cop who mixed up his gun and his Taser at the train station for which the film is named. In a classic Hollywood twist, “Fruitvale” is rolling out in theaters nationwide during a time of deep racial and political divide. Trayvon Martin is not only fresh in our hearts and headlines, but the aftermath of his murder presents a current tentpole against which the film will undoubtedly benefit. The discussion is already in session, and depending on which side you stand, “Fruitvale” probably confirms your conviction.
Bolstered by an arrestingly honest script and superb cast, perhaps the film’s most important achievement is its reconstruction of a complex, whole, young man. Embodied brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan, the real-life – though now deceased – Oscar Grant is nuanced and true-to-life. That core, that stark portrayal of humanity is then wrapped expertly in layers of challenging circumstances.
Before he is a dead body at the center of a crime scene, Oscar Grant is someone we can all recognize: a son of Oakland, a father of a young daughter. He is young and out of focus, like many 22-year-olds that frequently float across our paths. He is tangled in the web of underemployment, an all-too-relevant sign of the times these past few recessive years. That familiar framework is bundled with explosive emotional outbursts, yes – maybe even anger – and desperation. He is black, and in real life, black men are rarely afforded the benefit of a full range of emotions. Yet this cinematic sketch dignifies Oscar with a somber sum and many messy parts.
“We have seen this again with Trayvon,”said Coogler on his rounds to promote the project. “Someone’s character instantly goes on trial in the media. They’re either a martyr and a saint, or everything they ever did was wrong. The truth is more complicated.”
What “Fruitvale” manages to do is mold the martyr/hoodlum paradox in a complex composite of an actual human being. One who is capable of both patience and frustration, affection and isolation, good intentions despite missteps. It seems that somewhere along the way, the character arc for young brothers as interpreted by some in white America has been reduced to simplistic dimensions. There is no balance to the anger, immaturity or mistakes, thereby projecting them as a threat best left for dead.
It’s far easier to mistake a pistol for a stun gun when what you fail to see is humanity reflected in that black skin; when you feel a duty to society to eliminate a menace.
At stake is a virtue more vital than just racial understanding. Young black men are worth more than a bullet hole on a subway platform and “Fruitvale Station” presents an artfully complex commute to the heart of a man who is neither martyr nor saint.