A letter about Fruitvale Station

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Written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Butler, and Ariana Neal.

This started its life as a letter to my girlfriend. With her blessing, I’m posting what I wrote. I’ve excised some personal details, added a few minor tweaks and clarifications, and fixed some typos. Otherwise, this is what it is—a love letter to a movie (and to the person who got me to see it), rather than a full-on review.

Dear J—,

I’m so glad you went to see Fruitvale Station, and then told me about it and wanted to talk about it. I was on the fence about going to see it, expecting yet another Tragic Tale of Black Youth. Too often, these Tragic Tales don’t seem to be about any particular black person but instead use black people to outline a social problem or present a message. In other words, too often Indie Hollywood treats African Americans not as complex, interesting humans but instead mere ciphers for political statements. The humanity gets lost in the sociology, I guess is what I’m saying. (See: PreciousThe HelpCrashBeasts of the Southern WildBallast, and on and on. Or, rather, don’t.) When a black person’s life ends tragically or is ground up by the system in Hollywood movies or in American independent cinema, so often those movies don’t see black folks outside of their race or acknowledge that race is but one of many factors that make up what this particular person s/he is, or how s/he thinks, or what s/he does. Blacks get simplified and sentimentalized, especially in movies about a social problem. (In some ways, the indies are worse than the mainstream, because the indies are so earnest and convinced of their goodness.) It’s a race-conscious racism but it’s racism all the same.

And I thought Fruitvale Station would be more of the same, and so had half-decided to skip it. Do I need more racial condescension in my life? Doesn’t America do a good-enough job of condescending to me as is?

But I was wrong, very, very wrong about Fruitvale Station. I’m really, deeply glad I saw it. Oscar Julius Grant III was a particular, joyous, aggravating presence on this Earth, a flawed child of God as I suppose we all are, and the filmmakers never allow us to forget that. It’s not a story of his death–or, rather, his death doesn’t serve as the only thing we know him for. The movie recaptures and emphasizes his life; it’s not just a memorial, or even mostly that. Instead, it’s instead a day in the life of one black man. He’s not a stand-in for All Black Men or a blank cipher through we can analyze Social Problems in Modern American Society. From the way the camera follows him, from the warm glow of the atmosphere around, to the uneasy flashbacks and the bouts of Oscar’s temper, you can tell that the filmmakers are invested in this specific dude. He’s not a position point or a tic mark for a historical survey but a person. And this is a day, the last day, in this particular person‘s life. This day in the life ends awfully but it is indeed a day in the life of a vibrant, fucked-up, trying-to-grow-up young man.

Hell, much of that is owed to Michael B. Jordan, right? He’s wonderful in a role that has a lot of shades to it, and thus must’ve been hard to play. (That scene when his mom visits him in jail, where he starts off excited to see his mom but then grows really angry at her, and then apologetic over his anger—I nearly lost it there.) But I also loved his interplay with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz—and her work in Raising Victor Vargas and Be Kind Rewind should’ve made her famous by now). They’re going through a rough patch, as all relationships do, in part b/c Oscar can’t keep a job other than selling weed and in part b/c Sophina caught him cheating on her. But they’re beginning to work through it, and you can tell that they’re trying, and that their struggles and pleasures are specific to this relationship. All relationships are processes, perpetual works in motion, with their own internal logic. You can see Oscar and Sophina’s relationship at work. His exchanges with his family are great, great, great. I did tear up a little during the dinner at his mom’s house, because of everything about that house’s decor, tight spaces, semi-tacky and beat-up furniture, and the warmth between family members: That all felt like Christmas Day, or Thanksgiving, or any cousin’s birthday at my grandmother’s house. It was so vivid, and loving, and that was the last time Oscar would get to experience that. That impromptu party and New Year’s countdown on the BART train, just before the violence, made me grin like an idiot.

And then that scene saddened me, because of something really specific to me, that I only realized while watching the movie and which I’m a little hesitant to bring up.

I was there. No, not on that BART station, not even in Oakland. But, at the end of 2008, I had gone to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA). My then-girlfriend tagged along, so we stayed a couple days after the conference—our first real vacation together—so we could spend New Year’s in San Francisco. And that’s what we did, riding the BART and MUNI trains everywhere. On New Year’s Eve, we ended up—after a terrible and expensive fixed-price meal at a tapas restaurant—ambling down Fisherman’s Wharf, taking swigs from a cheap bottle of champagne, looking for a place to watch the fireworks. It became clear that the Wharf was townie central, with almost no one from San Francisco present. It was where the kids from “the sticks” went on New Year’s Eve, to catch a glimpse of the City, glittering and expensive and just beyond their means on a regular day. They were mostly black, brown, and yellow teens and young adults from across the bay, from Oakland and Berkeley. San Francisco, for a big American city, is very white, unless you’re in Chinatown or the Mission District. I saw more nonwhite people there that night than I had in the previous five days combined. It was crowded as hell, and raucous. People started peeing and vomiting in alleys, behind bushes. I bumped into plenty of people with thick, non-bland-California accents. Waiting in line for a public restroom, post-fireworks (which we didn’t see after all), I chatted with a Hispanic man (“I’m from Back Bay, playa!” Yes, he said that. Yes, he flashed a sign at me while saying it. But, yes, he was also sheepish and looking a-glance, as if slightly ashamed of not being from San Francisco proper. No, I don’t know why I remember all of this so vividly.) He was roughly the same age, skin tone, and class as Oscar Grant.

Here’s the thing I can’t get out of my head, I could have bumped into Oscar and his crew that night. Probably not, but he was a townie riding into the City for some fun on New Year’s Eve. Around the time my girlfriend and I were taking a cab back to our bed-and-breakfast, Oscar Grant was getting shot in the back, less than 30 miles away from me. And, at the time, I probably thought of him as yet another townie from the boondocks, mucking up my good time by puking in the bushes and talking too loud on the boardwalk and wearing cheap leather and flashy bling. I can’t take away those awful, class-snobbish thoughts, and I can’t get that party in the subway train out of my head. 

The movie’s not perfect. No movie is. (Well, maybe The Royal Tenenbaums. Maybe Tokyo Story.) I didn’t need the scene with the stray dog to prove Oscar’s soulfulness and caring. I could have done with a little less of the shaky handheld camerawork, though I like how that style and the grainy, almost-out-of-focus film stock works to show how unstable and restless Oscar’s life is at that moment. The actual cellphone footage of the murder at the movie’s beginning, and the documentary footage of 2013’s rally at Fruitvale Station, seemed like weird bookends. They weren’t exactly exploitative but they weren’t exactly non-exploitative, either, and they made me queasy. The movie could’ve ended with Sophina and her daughter Tatiana in the shower, Sophina gulping for words to explain what’s happened to Tatiana’s daddy, and I would have been fine with it.

Still, though, I loved it. Thank you for encouraging me to see it.

Love,
W

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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