The shaky iPhone video ran hundreds of times on local and national newscasts in the first months of 2009, but its impact feels new and even bigger when viewed on a movie screen. The image is poor and the sound is distorted by the many raised, overlapping voices, but this much is clear: The BART cops pull one of the young black men from the group, put him on his stomach, and cuff him. And then one of the officers pulls out his pistol and shoots him dead. The sound of that gunshot packs a terrifying jolt, and the screen cuts to black.
In that moment, it seems wrong to think of anything but Oscar Julius Grant III, the man whose life was so brutally taken. But upon seeing it in Fruitvale Station, my mind nevertheless leapt to Sanford, Florida, where the aural counterpart, tapes of 911 calls capturing the final moments of Trayvon Martin's life, have been unspooling for the past three weeks. In that courtroom, and in the coverage of the events within it, a young black man's death has prompted speculation, assumptions, and judgment about his life. And in theaters across the country, Fruitvale Station considers those some questions about Oscar Grant.
Over the 90 minutes that follow the iPhone clip that opens the film, writer/director Ryan Coogler dramatizes the day that turned out to be Grant's last. Yet this is not merely a mournful docudrama; it's a film of keenly observed behavior and subtle domestic details, one that offers a bravely complex portrait of a man unjustly killed. Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) is 22, living with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter. He's hot tempered, has trouble with fidelity, and deals marijuana--though his New Year's resolution is to quit slinging and go straight. It won't be easy. He lost his job at a grocery store weeks earlier (due to chronic lateness) and hasn't worked up the nerve yet to tell Sophina. Instead, he goes back to the store and begs his old boss for his job back. When his request is refused, he loses his cool: He yells at, and even threatens, the man who could help him.
In that one scene, Coogler (and the excellent Jordan) tactfully conveys how Oscar's rage switches on and how quickly it gets out of his control. It's a foreboding turn of events, since we already know about his death--have already seen it, even--and thus presume that that anger will return to haunt him. But the entire sequence around that blow-up showcases the duality of his person. Mere moments earlier, while visiting a friend at the butcher's counter, he helps a customer looking for help buying supplies for a fish fry by putting her on the phone with his grandma for tips--and he doesn't even work there anymore. He's capable of being both kind and brutal, both honorable and troubling, both guilty and innocent.
Coogler's willingness to acknowledge Grant's flaws, to resist the urge to cast him as a martyr and instead paint the portrait of a troubled, sometimes "bad" guy, is what makes Fruitvale Station special--and challenging as drama and as commentary. That's why some early responses to the film are so puzzling. I'm not usually one to read or put much stock in IMDb reviews, particularly in advance of a film's release, but it's worth noting that as of this writing, nearly half of the user blurbs are not only negative, but grossly inaccurate, bafflingly charging the film with "whitewashing" the story of "Saint Oscar." "We elevate another hoodlum to the status of martyr," goes one typical review. Did these people see the same film?
The answer is, probably not. If they did, they perhaps couldn't abide the film's portrayal of a young black man as a complex human being--you're either a thug or a saint, good or bad, black or white (sometimes literally), with no shades of grey between. But this is not a phenomenon unique to Fruitvale Station. In the weeks and months following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the eagerness with which the pro-Zimmerman faction of the populace and media leapt breathlessly upon any scrap of negative information about his 17-year-old victim--he smoked pot! He talked like a thug on Twitter! He flipped off the camera in pictures! He may have stolen jewelry! "He was no angel," I was assured confidently by a family member, information she presumably attained from all the time they spent hanging out together. But even if every vile posthumous rumor that attached itself to Martin was true, even if he was a pot-dealing, thugged-out thief, what then? Is tweeting like Tupac a death-penalty offense?
It would be easy to presume that such bombshells gave those who secretly cheered Martin's murder justification for their bloodlust, but I can't claim to know what goes on in their hearts in any more than I can claim to know why someone who either did or didn't see Fruitvale Station would proclaim it a whitewash. But what seems certain, in both instances, is that there are those who refuse to acknowledge the possibility that these young black men could be both imperfect and undeserving of their deaths. George Zimmerman may well be acquitted in Martin's murder. Oscar Grant's killer, Officer Johannes Mehserle, is currently free after serving less than two years. In both cases, neither the men who killed them nor their apologists saw beyond Grant and Martin's sweatshirts and black skin to the living, breathing, complicated and troubled human beings inside. Fruitvale Station sees that person, for all of his flaws, and mourns him.