“People tried to make him a sum of everything wrong he had done in his life” –Ryan Coogler, director & screenwriter Fruitvale Station
I saw the movie Fruitvale Station today. I watched the cell phone videos and read articles about the actual incident before seeing the movie. I must say I was impressed. For those who don’t know the story read here (I know it’s Wikipedia, but this one is pretty accurate).
I was sure that this was going to be the type of movie where the commercial gave away the entire film, but that was not the case. The film takes us through the last 24 hours of Grant’s life as if we are going through it with him. We are in the kitchen as he gets his daughter ready for school, we are at his mother’s birthday dinner on New Year’s Eve, we are inside of the train at Fruitvale Station. This is how the director did a nice job of generating empathy for Oscar Grant. He didn’t portray him as innocent, but that was the beauty of the film. What Ryan Coogler set out to do, and what he did very well, is offer us a day in the life of a young man who was loveable, deeply flawed, and doing what a lot of young black men are doing– just trying to make it. Is there a better way Grant could have gone about surviving besides selling weed? Absolutely, but passing judgement is not the point of Coogler’s film.
The movie received wide release just a couple of weeks after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The verdict, much like Grant’s murder, evoked anger from those who are frankly tired of seeing young black men killed for being young black men. In light of all of the anger though, I think what the George Zimmerman trial has taught us on a human level is our distance from the concept of redemption. Trayvon Martin’s character was dragged through the mud during the trial. George Zimmerman is now the poster child for evil white men in America. This is not fair. What Coogler’s film dares to ask us is: Can we generate empathy for people who have done wrong in the past? Can we truly let a person’s sentence end in jail? Redemption is the soul of the American dream. The promise of this country is that people could migrate here from anywhere, leave their trials behind them, and become as great as they wanted to be. Second chances are the American way. However, this is a promise that has never been made to black men in this country, and Fruitvale Station in many ways is an expression of that reality, though that is not its purpose as a film.
I can tell from seeing the plot devices he used in this film that Coogler has a long career as a screenwriter ahead of him. Plus, I must also give mention to the cinematographers. There were some very interesting camera angles happening, especially when Oscar sees the gurney rolling toward him after he has been shot. Kudos for a good first time out Ryan Coogler, and I look forward to seeing more of your work.