Scott, in this special edition of Reel Heroes we comment on a different kind of film brought to us by writer/director Ryan Cooger and producers Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer.
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Yes indeed. Today we’re sharing our thoughts about a new film called Fruitvale Station, which doesn’t aim at all to be a summer blockbuster. Instead, its goal is to share the details of the tragic story about a young man’s life and senseless death.
At Reel Heroes we rate movies on two scales: we award Reels for entertainment value and Heroes for the adherence to classic hero paradigms. Fruitvale Station breaks the mold of both scales. It doesn’t aim to entertain as much as inform. The lead character is not a classical hero. Instead, he is an everyman who has made a decision to change his life and is cut down before he can act on his choices. Rather than try and fit Fruitvale Station to our usual forms, we have elected to comment on the film and how it affected us, giving the film the attention and criticism it deserves.
Fruitvale Station begins by introducing us to a young man named Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who lives in Oakland, California. Oscar is married to Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and has an adorable young daughter named Tatiana (Ariana Neal). We learn many things about Oscar, including the fact that he has served time in prison, that he has cheated on his wife, and that he is about to lose his job for being chronically late. But we also learn that he adores his wife and child, he has many friends, and he is a devoted son to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).
I felt hesitant approaching a review of this movie. I’m a middle-aged white suburbanite. I wasn’t sure that I could relate to a 22-year-old black man living in urban California. But that is what Fruitvale Station does best – it makes the story of Oscar Grant relatable. Director Cooger takes us step-by-step through Grant’s last day of life. We learn that he’s lost his job, his sister depends on him for financial assistance, his 4-year-old daughter adores him, and he dearly loves her, his girlfriend loves him and so does his mother. In short, we come to learn that Grant has all the things in his life that we all have in ours: he has people he loves and people who love him.
You’re right, Greg. There’s no way that you and I can appreciate just how difficult it is to be a young black man in this country. But this movie does its best to bring those challenges to life and, at times, shove them brutally right in our face. The movie portrays Oscar as a man with a good heart who genuinely wants to improve his life, and a flashback scene to his earlier prison days truly underscores his personal growth and maturity since that time. Michael B. Jordan does an outstanding job of giving Oscar’s life a sweet yet jarring reality. And of course we’re appalled at the utter senselessness of Oscar’s death. We know the death is coming and it’s painful watching the scene unfold in tragic and tearful detail.
As entertainment, the movie falls flat. It proceeds from event to event, plodding along without the extreme high or low points that a normal drama would have. There were times when I felt bored. And there were times when I thought I knew what would come next. There’s a point in the film where Oscar is completely down. He’s broke, people around him need his financial help, and he turns to the one thing he has in abundance: weed. I expected him to solve his problems by skirting the law again. But when his buyer is late to the deal, Oscar reconsiders and dumps the whole package into the bay. This is the point where we realize Oscar has really taken stock of his life and made a decision to make a change.
I’m not much more aware of life in the shoes of young urban black men now than I was at the beginning of Fruitvale Station. But I am more keenly aware of how every man’s life has irreplaceable value. There are people who depend on each of us. There are people who care about us. Fruitvale Station reminds us that each and every one of us is capable of redemption and deserves respect.
Greg, I thought that Fruitvale Station did a good job of giving us an up-close and personal look at the life of a young man whose growing potential was snuffed out tragically. If I had a problem with the film, it is based on my cynicism about its purpose. Yes, we need to know about the life of Oscar Grant and how a white man ended it (and got away with it) through either sheer incompetence or brutal malice. But most African-American shooting victims come at the hands of other African-Americans. Surely there are many, many more Oscar Grants who die in a black-on-black crime and whose stories also need to be told. And yet they won’t be told because black-on-black crime is not an issue that our country wants to confront as aggressively as white-on-black crime.
In my opinion, the stories of all innocent victims of gun deaths need to be told, regardless of the race of the victims or the perpetrators. The story of Oscar Grant saddens me deeply, and I hope it does more than divide our already racially divided country even more. My hope is that the movie can inspire positive, constructive changes so as to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. If Fruitvale Station can help achieve that goal, then it is a film well worth watching.