Can a movie heal a nation?
That’s the question raised by “Fruitvale Station,” a modest but astonishingly accomplished urban drama that arrives in Washington area theaters Friday as an eerie example of art not just imitating life, but fusing with it. The movie, which was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, tells the true story of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a white transit police officer — who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter — in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in an Oakland, Calif., rail station.
As the chronicle of an unarmed African American man being shot and killed, “Fruitvale Station” engages the same issues of profiling, paranoia and the grim realities of being young, black and male that have threaded through discussions of Trayvon Martin, whose killer was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter last weekend.
That verdict came just hours after “Fruitvale Station” opened in Oakland, New York and Los Angeles, where the film’s star, Michael B. Jordan, told a Saturday-night audience that he was devastated by the news.
“My heart hurts so bad right now,” he said during a question-and-answer session after a screening. “I wasn’t going to come after I found out about George Zimmerman getting acquitted. It broke me up. That’s why I think this film means so much, because it keeps happening again and again. [We must] learn how to treat each other better and stop judging one another just because we’re different. It’s not just a black and white thing. It’s a people thing.”
In fact, “a people thing” aptly describes “Fruitvale Station.” The stunning debut from Coogler, 27, is a compassionate, adamantly humanistic film, one that transcends heated rhetoric and reflexive anger, even as it shrewdly illustrates how the dynamics of race operate in 21st-century America.
“Fruitvale Station” begins with real-life cellphone footage of Grant’s death at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stop in Oakland, where Grant and others were detained by transit police after an altercation on a train. The film then flashes back to several hours earlier, when Grant, 22, was making resolutions with his girlfriend, running errands for his mother’s birthday dinner, trying to get his job back at the grocery store where he worked and tending to his young daughter.
Although Coogler indulged in some artistic license — an episode with an injured dog never happened, for example — for the most part, he hewed closely to court records and Grant’s family’s recollections to reconstruct the last day of Grant’s life.
Thanks to Coogler’s somber, reflective direction and a breathtaking performance by Jordan, the audience comes to know Grant, not as a headline or hot-button issue, but as a fully realized human being: warm, tender and generous, but also impulsive and quick to anger; an ex-convict with a troubled past and an admittedly shaky present, but also a cautiously optimistic future. By the time “Fruitvale Station” arrives at its tragically predictable end, viewers are left less with a sense of anger or hatred than profound grief at potential senselessly wasted.
That Coogler created such a sense of immediacy and intimacy is surely grounded in the fact that, in other circumstances, he could have been Grant: He grew up as a “nerd-jock,” in “areas of Oakland that were rough,” attending Catholic schools but also well attuned to the pressures and prejudices of the streets. Coogler, who attended college on football scholarships, was on break from film school at the University of Southern California and working security at a San Francisco New Year’s Eve party in 2009 when he heard that someone was shot at a BART station. Once the videos of the Grant shooting began to circulate, they hit Coogler hard.
“I’m the same age as Oscar, he wore the same kind of clothing I was wearing at the time, his friends looked like my friends,” Coogler said during a visit to Washington three weeks ago. “So, people like me watch that footage in a different space.”
Coogler recalled seeing Grant as “snatched into two different directions. If you were on one side of the fence, he became this holy person, this deity who had never done anything wrong in his life and was a rallying cry for whatever agenda you might have. The other side, they took everything he had ever done wrong in his life and became that: a thug, a criminal who got what he deserved.”
When Coogler returned to USC and began writing “Fruitvale Station,” he started with a question: “What if I didn’t make it home? How we live our lives is through relationships. And every person [has someone] who that person’s life has immense value to. Who that person means the world to. There are people in your life who, if for whatever reason you didn’t make it back, they’d be devastated and their lives would never be the same. That’s human nature, that’s an aspect of humanity, and that’s what people like Oscar aren’t afforded.”
“Fruitvale Station” doesn’t avoid racial politics: In one brief encounter, Grant meets a white man about his age who stole a ring but managed to rebound — an oblique but eloquent study in unexamined privilege and how one mistake can have fatally disparate consequences, depending on one’s position within the historical and structural matrix referred to as “race.”
But in its steady focus on Grant, “Fruitvale Station” manages to elucidate those differences without aggravating them, making it possible for any viewer — regardless of race or ideological bent — to warm to Grant’s story and grieve at his family’s loss.
In that way, the film might be every bit as cathartic for the era of Grant and Martin — a zeitgeist defined by beer summits at the Obama White House, viral social media and largely peaceful protests — as the more highly pitched and explosive “Do the Right Thing,” “Boyz n the Hood” and “Menace II Society” were, for a time, defined by Rodney King, Crown Heights and the crack epidemic. (“Fruitvale Station” earned an impressive $54,000 average per screen in the handful of theaters it opened in last weekend, and executives with the Weinstein Co., the film’s distributor, suggested that the Florida verdict helped propel interest.)
“Fruitvale Station” associate producer Gerard McMurray, a Howard University graduate who was Coogler’s classmate at USC's film school, noted that the issues he, Coogler and their peers are facing “are the same, but different” as the ones faced by directors Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”), John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”) and the Hughes brothers (“Menace II Society”).
“I think we have a different approach to what’s affecting us as black men nowadays, cinematically,” McMurray said. “All of those filmmakers who came out of the early 1990s, who were telling stories about people of color, were definitely our inspiration. We just want to tell good stories that involve people. If they’re people of color, fine, but it’s about the story.”
As it happens, “Fruitvale Station” arrives during a time of remarkable creative ferment within the African American filmmaking community — a community that’s as alive and expressive as in the Lee and Singleton era. Along with directors such as Dee Rees (“Pariah”), Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”) and Andrew Dosunmu (“Restless City,” “Mother of George”), Coogler and his colleagues in this “black new wave” are making a type of nuanced, character-driven film that, while deeply engaged politically, advances its arguments through empathy rather than confrontation, communicating through poetic images more often than blunt polemic.
Does a new brand of filmmaking augur a similarly evolved politics? Oakland was one of the few cities where violent protests broke out after the Zimmerman verdict, with nine people being arrested Monday. One man was photographed over the weekend hurling a trash can through a plate-glass window, recalling the climactic scene of frustration and rage in “Do the Right Thing.”
The image was all the more lamentable considering that “Fruitvale Station” was simultaneously playing to sold-out houses in the Bay Area where Grant lived and died, and where Coogler has decided to stay and make more films. In reframing one young black man’s death and restoring meaning to his life — not to mention resisting Hollywood’s siren call in order to keep faith with his own community — Coogler is doing the right thing in a whole new way.