At some point in the future, “Fruitvale Station” might be seen as the breakout flick of a long illustrious career for writer/director Ryan Coogler, who is just 27 years old with this, his first feature film.
Its premiere, however, is enhanced or impeded, depending on your point of view, by the current political climate. Making the rounds of festivals since the first of the year (winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the Un Certain Regard - Avenir Prize at Cannes) and released this week in selected theaters, the film’s opening coincides with the verdict of the George Zimmerman murder trial in Florida.
The victims at the center of the two tragedies are as dissimilar as the geographic locales in which they occurred. Bay Area resident Oscar Grant, whose demise is depicted in “Fruitvale Station,” was a problematic, fatherless, (his father remains incarcerated in Vacaville on a murder charge, which undoubtedly triggered abandonment issues for his son) 22 years old with felony convictions (for selling the drug ecstasy), a daughter (whose father had been incarcerated for two of her four years), and family exasperated with his poor decisions and the repercussions in their wake.
Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, whose parents although divorced were actively involved in his life, was a 17-year-old high schooler with episodes of delinquency (graffiti, possession of a marijuana pipe, and truancy), events underscored as deficiencies of character in the trial that followed his murder.
Both individuals shared a commonality in the view of a vast cross section of the American public, however: virile Black males of a certain age perceived to be outcasts and threats to the society in which they live (throughout the movie, Grant wears the same “hoodie” which caused so much controversy in the Martin saga). This phenomenon transcends the locales of California’s Bay Area and central Florida. Black men in this category fit within a specific demographic beginning at adolescence and extending just short of middle age, although men past the age of 40 have been targeted, including notables like musician Quincy Jones, attorney Johnnie Cochran, and the current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, while he was serving as a federal prosecutor.
Fruitvale Station tells the story of the last day in the life of Grant. Coogler chooses to bracket his drama with actual footage of the event from the cell phones of scores of bystanders at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station on that fateful night.
“Wired” TV series veteran Michael B. Jordan plays Grant as a well-meaning, amiable sort, struggling to reach the maturity desired by his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), their daughter (Ariana Neal), and his mother (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).
Standing in the way are the sway of his thug-in-training friends and the allure of the streets. The biggest hurdle is Grant’s own issue with anger management, a flaw brought home in a series of flashbacks.
As a docudrama, the film takes liberties with the actual events, including a scene with a stray pit bull to make the analogy that these animals, like African American males, have generated a mythology of menace, conceived in reality, then morphed into a phobia bordering on the surreal. The world that Grant inhabited is one familiar to many urban residents of color: the mundane grind of domestic familiarity overshadowed by the specter of violence that is part and parcel of contemporary America.
Looming over this is the knowledge of how this specific scenario ended—with Grant’s death at the hands of a BART transit policeman. Perhaps the telling factor is a society, and it’s representatives (lawfully appointed police in this instance, a Neighborhood Watch captain in another), and a justice system that has already determined the guilty and innocent. Grant is the essential noire hero, doomed from the start.
In spite of all the media hoopla generated by the Grant and Martin incidents, an overlooked component is that these are merely two episodes in a cycle that is likely to continue after this motion picture’s run is over. Leonard Deadwyler, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin are names and individuals differentiated by chronological timeline and geographic location. The inclusion of additional names to this twisted rooster is almost inevitable.
“Fruitvale Station,” playing now in selected theaters, is rated “R” for some violence, language, and drug use.