The Struggle of Representation:
Fruitvale Station depicts the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man from Oakland, California who was shot and killed by police early in the morning of January 1, 2009. Oscar was unarmed and pinned on the ground by two officers, one of whom shot him in the back. Oscar died several hours later. The officer who shot him was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.
There’s a scene near the beginning of the film in which Oscar befriends a stray pit bull while filling up his car at a gas station. Seconds later, the dog is run over by a car, which speeds away as Oscar yells after it. Oscar picks up the bloody, dying dog and holds him in his arms for a few moments, then sets him down in the parking lot and drives away. The whole thing feels a little forced — you sense a directorial hand above the action, guiding the pieces around with some meaningful intent. In an interview with The Huffington Post, director Ryan Coogler talked about the scene. “You never hear about a pit bull doing anything good in the media. And they have a stigma to them ... and in many ways, pit bulls are like young African-American males. Whenever you see us in the news, it's for getting shot and killed or shooting and killing somebody -- for being a stereotype… So, there's a commonality with us and pit bulls — often we die in the street. Do you know what I mean? That's where we die.”
Fruitvale is Coogler’s first feature, and the director is emerging as a filmmaker with strong social inclinations. This is an ambitious project to tackle, given the racial implications of the event (especially in the wake of George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin), but it’s clear that Coogler is trying to tell us something about what Oscar Grant’s killing means.
The film picks up with Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on the night before his killing and follows him for what we know will be the last hours of his life. Oscar has a girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and a four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). In the first scene, we learn that he recently cheated on Sophina and has been selling weed to get by. He also recently got out of prison — the movie doesn’t tell us for what charge — and more recently lost his job at a grocery store for constant lateness. But it’s a new year, and Oscar wants a fresh start. He commits himself to Sophina and vows to stop selling drugs, going as far as to dump a bag of weed into the bay instead of selling it to a dealer. He’s a loving father to his daughter, a loving son to his mother (whose birthday, in real life and in the film, is this very day, New Year’s Eve), and a gregarious presence wherever he goes, able to charm stray pit bulls and white girls at grocery stores alike.
Coogler is, essentially, a realist, and his long takes and hand-held shots of Oakland are stark and stunning. He has an eye for the harshness of the urban environment but also recognizes its beauty, as when it’s touched by a sunset. Coogler also gives us a sensitive and textured picture of black culture, something that is largely absent from mainstream American cinema. Early in the film, Oscar’s sister calls him to say that she can’t make it to their mother’s birthday party that night, but asks Oscar to buy a card on her behalf. “Don’t get me no fake-ass card with no white people on it,” she says. “I want a black card.” As a white guy, I don’t think about the race of the people on birthday cards, and that Oscar and his sister have this conversation gives me insight into their lives that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Later, Oscar picks up a card featuring the whitest white people in the world, and when he shows it to his uncles at the party, their laughter takes on a deeper significance than it would have otherwise had. Coogler defamiliarizes this simple and familiar act, infusing it with new meaning, bringing the audience closer to the characters. It’s a skillful directorial move, and one of the film’s finer moments.
Essentially, the entire film is a process of defamiliarization. We’re presented first with the real-life footage of Oscar’s killing. Maybe you’ve seen the footage already or heard about the incident; perhaps you know nothing about it. Either way, one’s assumptions and prior knowledge likely affect one’s interpretation of the event. Coogler’s project, from that point on, is to force you to shed those assumptions, to consider the real person behind the event; to reckon with the consequences and feel what he and his family felt. In this, Coogler succeeds brilliantly. Apart from a few heavy-handed missteps (such as a scene in which his mother recommends he take the train that night instead of driving), which serve to undermine rather than underscore the drama, Coogler constructs a narrative that is utterly crushing. By the end, Oscar feels like family, and his death hurts as much as any death I’ve ever seen on screen. The final shot of the film, which shows Oscar’s daughter as she realizes what her mother is trying to tell her, is as powerful and touching as final shots get.
But because of the tragic portrayal of Oscar, and the focus on his attempt to turn his life around, Coogler loses sight of the bigger point he’s trying to make. The depiction of Oscar as a reformed criminal, a noble, caring man and an attentive father on the path to righteous, legal living, obfuscates the real struggle. Of course, all these things make Oscar’s story much more tragic and emotional for the viewer because we identify with him, we’re rooting for him. But the real injustice in the killing of Oscar Grant lies not in the fact that the better life he’d vowed to live had been taken away from him, but in the fact that we live in a society of deeply entrenched, systematic racism, in which an event like this, no matter the circumstances of the victim, could happen at all. In short, by accentuating the tragedy of this single event, we lose a sense of context, a sense of the mechanisms of society that created the conditions of this horrible event.
Fruitvale Station was released around the time of the George Zimmerman trial, and the events of the film were compared to those of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Beyond the obvious parallels, there’s one small point I’d like to consider. When he was killed, Trayvon had trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system. The judge ruled that this evidence could be used in the case, and the defense argued that Trayvon was paranoid and aggressive from marijuana use. Now, it’s been shown that marijuana doesn’t make you do those things, and that Trayvon probably hadn’t even smoked marijuana in the previous 24 hours. My concern here lies with the urge to cast aspersions on Trayvon’s character, as if the fact that he used marijuana made him somehow criminal, somehow more deserving of the suspicion that caused Zimmerman to follow him, which led to the fight that killed Trayvon. It’s as if, in order for the killing to be considered unjustified murder, Trayvon Martin must be a perfectly pure human being.
It seems to me that Coogler makes a similar mistake in his portrayal of Oscar Grant. While the film tells us that Oscar had cheated on his girlfriend, been to prison, and sold drugs, these things are portrayed as a part of his past, a past that he’d given up for a more righteous future. But whether his future was to be more righteous, more legal, or not, his killing would be just as appalling. A more powerful film would not be one that shows an Oscar determined to change his ways, but one that attempts to explain why the events and circumstances of Oscar’s life had led him to be the man that he was, rather than the romanticized man that he could have been. In liberal thought, too often the urge is to idealize the poor and oppressed — this is a pointless exercise. To get anywhere, we have to shift away from that, and into a critical engagement with what causes poverty and oppression. That, not the relative purity of the victims of society, is the real issue.
Because despite the fact that Oscar Grant’s story is harrowing and important, Fruitvale Station, I think, does little to question the inequality that caused it. It does little to question why Oscar Grant served 16 months in prison for a gun possession charge, while Johannes Mehserle served 11 months in prison for shooting and killing Oscar Grant. It does little to question why, according to a report by the Sentencing Project, “Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males.” We live in a profoundly unequal society, and the illegal or morally ambiguous behavior of those on the wrong end of it should not be a determining factor in their right to life or sympathy.
More fundamentally, there seems to be something missing in the mainstream discourse about inequality in this country. The conversation only ever seems to go so far as to point out that racism is bad, and that maybe there’s some racism underlying the actions of our country and its people. Fruitvale Station is just a protracted, exaggerated, and excessively tragic iteration of our basic knee-jerk reaction to events such as these, and only underscores existing thought about them. It’s as if, upon seeing the film and being sad for Oscar Grant, you have fulfilled your social contract, and can leave the theater feeling as if, in experiencing the right emotions, you’ve played your part in the fight against our unequal society. The next logical question for a well meaning person is, of course, What can we do about this? I'm not arguing that Fruitvale Station should serve as a public service announcement, instructing its audience how to solve racial inequality; but it should try to engender an understanding of the complexity of the issues it's ostensibly addressing.
I don’t mean to speak as if these issues have immediate answers, let alone that I would have them. But I know that the people who are affected by the problem of inequity are almost unanimously left out of the discussion of the problem. Because although Coogler is a black man from Oakland, Fruitvale Station, despite its subject matter, is a thoroughly mainstream film, embedded in the light-liberal ethos of Hollywood. There’s a paternalism in the romantic representation of Oscar Grant; he’s been scrubbed clean and turned into a martyr, a process that serves to distance him from the filmmakers, to divorce the film from his perspective.
I wonder what the reaction would be to this film if the depiction of Oscar Grant were less sentimental. Say Oscar had sold the bag of weed instead of dumping it out, that he’d cheated on his girlfriend on that day, that he’d neglected his daughter or his mother, that he’d done anything other than the right thing to do. Would our reading of the film change? Would our feelings about Oscar Grant change? Maybe people like Kyle Smith, who wrote a horrifying article for Forbes essentially vilifying Grant for his crimes and justifying his killer’s actions, feel even more vindicated? Or would a more honest film force us to confront our beliefs about race and inequality, make us ask why something like this happens, rather than just reassure us that it’s terrible that it happened? Perhaps in the absence of our sadness about Oscar Grant’s death, we could begin to try to understand how and why it happened. Maybe then those oppressed people who are the object of so much sadness would have a chance to speak on their own behalf.
In his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” James Baldwin attacks Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its patronizingly sanctimonious representation of slaves, which he argues was still the prevalent mode of representation even in the more progressive social protest novels of his era. Interestingly, much of Baldwin’s language could also be used to describe Fruitvale Station. He writes of the novel’s “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality… Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion,” arguing that “we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” And, even more pertinent to Fruitvale, he takes issue with Stowe’s depiction of the titular character: “In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity — which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves — we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.”
This is a nearly perfect crystallization of the problem with the representation of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. But the most penetrating insight, and that most applicable to the film, comes in a remarkable passage near the end of the essay, in which he critiques his mentor Richard Wright’s novel Native Son:
That Baldwin’s issue with a novel written in the 19th century is largely the same issue that he has with Native Son (1940) and the protest novels of his time are the same problems present in a social protest film that was released in 2013 must reveal that there is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of the representation of racial inequality in our society. Clearly, the discourse has to evolve. We understand that the killing of Oscar Grant is terrible, just as we understand that “slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible.” We must progress beyond simple moral judgment, beyond knee-jerk reactions and sentimentality, to address what Baldwin calls, “the only important question” — what moves people to such deeds. In order to explore these issues, social films like Fruitvale Station must confront the humanity, the darkness, the complexity of the individuals involved, so that we can try to assess why things like this happen, and begin to come to an understanding of inequality.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.