Portrait of a Black Man: Reviewing ‘Fruitvale Station’

Fruitvale poster

“Seen as animals, brutes, natural born rapists, and murderers, Black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype…Black males who refuse categorization are rare, for the price of visibility in the contemporary world of White supremacy is that Black male identity be defined in relation to the stereotype whether by embodying it or seeking to be other than it.”
–bell hooks

There’s a scene late in Fruitvale Station that is about as astute and subtle a depiction of the disparities between white men and black men in America as I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.

Oscar (played magnificently by the phenomenally talented Michael B. Jordan) is standing outside a store waiting for his girlfriend, Sophina (beautifully portrayed by Melonie Diaz), and her friend to come out of the bathroom. He had just sufficiently charmed the owner into letting the two women go in when a white couple appears. The wife is pregnant and needs to use the bathroom too. The owner lets her in as well, begrudgingly, leaving Oscar standing outside with the husband. The two have a casual conversation that serves three purposes: one, to let the audience know that Oscar has been seriously considering asking Sophina to marry him; two, to remind us again how charming and at ease Oscar is with all kinds of people (remember – he also charmed the young white woman who didn’t know what fish to fry), and three – and most notably – to underline just how much harder it is for black people, black men in particular, to get their lives together than it is for white folks.

And yet, this is what the film really leaves us with, what it’s really about: A young brother who is just trying to get it together. We have spent the bulk of the movie watching Oscar fumble about trying to sort out his life. We watch him trying, by turns, begging and threatening, to get his job at a grocery store back. We watch him contemplate going back to dealing drugs. We watch him argue and seduce Sophina, charm and spoil his mother for her birthday, bail his sister out of her own money troubles, and perhaps most poignantly, dote on the one thing in his life that makes total and complete sense to him – his daughter. The struggle is real, specific. We care.

After a trying day, Oscar then gets to listen to this white man talk so casually about marrying his wife when they had “nothing” and then starting a business that is apparently doing well enough that he hands Oscar a card. Jordan’s reaction – a remarkable combination of respect, admiration and, just a touch of jealousy – says all we need to know. For this white man, things come so easily. In Jordan’s performance in that moment, we are reminded again that it’s just not as easy for a brothers like Oscar to get their lives together.

Fruitvale Station is not a film about the murder of Oscar Grant. It’s a film about who Oscar Grant actually was. It’s about the man. The boy. Reconstructing the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life by talking to his friends and family, Ryan Coogler creates what is quite possibly one of the fullest, most humane portrayals of a young black man since Baby Boy and Jason’s Lyric (and it’s probably a stronger overall film than both of those two fine films).

What the film gets right – that so few films (black or otherwise) do – is the way tenderness and hardness coexist, overlap, and sometimes follow in quick succession. Too often, black men’s rage is overstated; our softness underexplored or ridiculed. In Fruitvale Station, it’s all there. And in Jordan, Coogler has the finest black actor of his generation to hinge the film upon. Jordan is the rare actor who can switch mood and posture fluidly. He can play vulnerability, rage, innocence and malevolence in equal measure – and, crucially, make it all seem like different sides of the same character. His face is wonderfully expressive – you can practically read it – and his eyes do more work than most actors can do with their entire body. He has Terrence Howard’s courageous, unflinching vulnerability, Will Smith’s charisma, Jeffrey Wright’s preternatural subtlety, and it seems, Denzel Washington’s precision, focus and commitment to the moment.

The sequence where Oscar’s mother (played with a quiet, sturdy force by Octavia Spencer) visits him in prison is so beautifully observed it’s, in some ways, more painful than the final scenes. Oscar is all black male posturing as he walks out to the visitor room to see his mother and only softens and warms up when he sees her. His entire body changes. And as they talk, we get all the information we need to care about this man. He’s young, thoughtful, caring, but also quite volatile and immature. He will not stand for anyone disrespecting his mother, but is absolutely crushed and filled with a deep shame at the thought that he may have already let his young daughter, Tatiana (nicely played by young Ariana Neal), down. And he’s absolutely devastated by the possibility that his mother will not come to see him again and he’ll be left alone to survive jail. Like so many black men, the very idea that our mothers will not be there for us is excruciating. It’s a big scene that conveys so much information and Jordan nails every. single. beat.

By the time the guards are struggling to restrain Oscar, he has become a full, flesh and blood, human being and we are fully invested.

And we have to be, because what happens to Oscar is unquestionably a tragedy. But you can only feel the gravity of it because we’ve spent time getting to know who he really was. The third act is earned. We feel cheated, not because the film manipulates us or because we already know what is going to happen to Oscar Grant, but because the loss is real. Coogler knows that we know the statistics, but the film is not a dispassionate treatise on police brutality. It’s no polemic. It’s a portrait of a life. And because it is, the loss means more to us by the end than some abstract conversation about white supremacy’s absolute indifference and hatred for black life.

Fruitvale Station defies stereotype by finding ways throughout the film to show us as many sides of Oscar Grant as it can. As a result, the film is not hagiography or sanitized. It is proactively, wondrously human.

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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