Sean K. Cureton

Invisible Men In Fruitvale Station

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 23, 2015 at 10:42 am
Fruitvale Station Poster

The Weinstein Company

Fruitvale Station (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
VOD Rating: Loved It

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is a film very much of our time. In its depiction of the final hours of the late Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old ex-con, and father of one, who was fatally shot while being detained by local law enforcement on the night of New Year’s Eve 2009, Coogler crafts a narrative on the racial divide that has continued to grip the nation in reactive and retributive violence in the interceding five years. Racial profiling has continued to result in gross levels of police brutality against suspects of color, resulting in citywide riots, mass social protest, and the unilateral critique of a culture seemingly on the brink of societal collapse,  a fact reflected by recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore signaling a deeply entrenched distrust and resentment towards the nationally broadcast images projected upon American citizens of color. In Fruitvale Station, Coogler provides the antidote to such defamations of national character, as the Oscar Grant III depicted in his film is a protagonist torn between two worlds, one in which he capitulates to the nationally drawn caricature of himself as a drug dealer, and the other of resulting unemployment beget by socio-economic disparity. More impressive than Coogler’s depiction of the real life Oscar Grant III’s reality, however, is the way in which the film encapsulates the desperation of being black in America today, where every young black male is a suspect already proven guilty by the color of their skin, and due process is a sad joke beholden to a federal system of law and order that has proven to be anything but color blind and unbiased towards its defendants.

In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant III, portrayed with subtle grace by Michael B. Jordan, is depicted against a domestic background constantly in danger of being encroached upon by Oscar’s criminal past. Fired from his job at a local grocery store after showing up to the job late a few too many times, Oscar finds himself falling back into a pattern which previously landed him in prison. After being told by his boss that he won’t be taking him back onto the store’s staff, Jordan turns in an impassioned recrimination, accusing his former employer of wishing Oscar back onto the street, a position more uniformly befitting a young black male without a college education and living in the film’s urban California setting. Juxtaposed against Oscar’s convivial interaction with a well-to-do white woman mere moments before, we simultaneously see the encouragement towards crime and violence that our culture socially promotes in our interactions with the black populace. The national identity which African Americans suffer as thugs and hard, ex-cons is one of gross misappropriation propagated by a society eager to build a straw man upon which to foist all of our collective fears regarding our respective socio-economic stability.

Towards the beginning of the film, there is a short interaction between Oscar and a feral dog, where the dog is the victim of a hit and run collision. The driver involved in the incident is unambiguously depicted and speeding away from the scene of the crime, leaving Oscar cradling the dog in his arms, and screaming impotently for justice. Like the interactions depicted in the grocery store, this one image from the film serves as foreshadowing of the film’s final half hour, signaling the tragic end that ultimately befalls Oscar that has been foretold in each and every interaction with the world around him. Oscar and the stray dog are one and the same from Coogler’s perspective, and his film is a tenderly told and emotionally taut drama on the tragedy of not just one single man involved in an isolated incident, but a society which has been forced to reckon with the fallout of the same. Oscar Grant III thereby serves as a stand-in for the more recent tragedies that befell Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, with the cycle of violence and retribution perpetrated on both sides of the racial divide, resulting in a country at war with itself.

Unlike Ava DuVernay’s more widely seen bio-pic of Martin Luther King Jr. last year, Selma, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is a quieter set piece on race relations. While Fruitvale Station’s dramaturgy is never so melodramatically plotted and minutely orchestrated as DuVernay’s, its social critique is still just as precisely aimed and widely disseminating in its indictment of an entire society. In Fruitvale Station, the viewer is directly implicated in the transgressions depicted on screen, and the character with whom you directly identify is seemingly dependent upon the color of your skin and attendant socio-economic status, though Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant III resonates universally. Though some of the film’s narrative may have been contrived out of convenience for the specific narrative being told, Coogler’s film rings true on the side of our shared national culture, with the military-industrial complex a necessary evil from which we as a society have yet to escape entirely. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant III becomes yet another literary, invisible man, his plight as old as the nation in which he lived, and a tragedy that continues to unfold every day in cities across the greater United States; in Coogler’s film, we are all Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, culturally culpable and complicit in the injustices inflicted upon ourselves, all of us invisible men.

Fruitvale Station is currently available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on VOD Recommendation of the Week.

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