Reality ‘Written in Lightening’: On ‘Fruitvale Station’

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
by David J. Leonard
Originally published| NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Walking out of the theater in West Los Angeles, I felt a lot of emotions.  Even before Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station started, I felt the film at a visceral level: I was sad, anxious, angry, and disheartened as I sat down. Emotionality is central to the film.

As brilliant as the film is at tapping into the emotionality of Oscar Grant’s killing, it is not simply a film of anguish or one that builds upon the outrage and sadness compelled by murders #every28hours.  It is a work of art; a tapestry of images, narratives, and movements.  It is a story of depth about a layered life put together through sight and sound, image and voice.

There is a lot to be said about the film at an intellectual, artistic, and cinematic level.  For example, Coogler’s ability to “make Oakland a character” is crucial to the film; it is done with great precision and depth.  The shots of street signs, the Bay, BART, and several Oakland landmarks are critical to the film’s situating of Grant’s life and death within a physical landscape.  To understand Oscar Grant and to reflect on his death, requires an ability to see and hear, feel and understand, Oakland in post civil rights, post 9/11 America.  His life and death is a story of Oakland; it is also a story of neighborhoods and communities across the nation.

With its use of the camera, from the close-ups of Tatiana scrubbing crabs to the various moments that brought Grant’s humanity to life, Fruitvale Station forces viewers to not only confront Grant’s death and his killing in 2009, but his life: his relationship with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz); his adoration for his mother Wanda Johnson (Octavia Spencer) and sister; his beautiful interactions with his daughter; and the many obstacles he faced in an unforgiving America.  Wesley Morris offers an important assessment of the film when he writes:

Fruitvale Station speaks to that yawning discrepancy. What feels slight, shaggy, and ordinary about it is also rather remarkable. To present Grant this way — as a son who loves his mother, as a father who loves his daughter, as the sort of person who comforts a dying dog and pleads with a shop owner to permit a pregnant woman to use his restroom — is to remove the stigma. He’s a lower-middle-class kid who got mixed up with crime. But most of the narrative belongs to a charming, charismatic, devoted young man, someone striving to better himself. It’s not only that this Grant is a person. It’s that, to a fault, he’s made to be more than black male pathology.

Rahiel Tesfamariam similarly emphasizes the film’s cinematic and narrative success in humanizing Grant – in challenging the systemic flattening of black bodies.  Fruitvale Station gives voice to Grant and the injustice evident in his death and in doing so challenges America’s racial landscape.

We also see this vulnerability play out in his dealings with the matriarchs in his family… These women are his anchors in life. Sophina keeps him honest, holds him accountable and brings out his sensual side. Through their relationship, we see his desire to be a protector and provider. His mother Wanda grounds him in prayer and nurtures him through wise words and good food. Her “tough love” approach often haunts him in his actions and decision-making. Then, there’s Grandma Bonnie who keeps him connected to tradition and the family history that proceeds him.

This backdrop is so important to the film, and to a larger landscape of anti-black racism; yet as I watched and cried, I found myself asking myself: does the persistence of segregation in Hollywood constrain the impact of such an important film?  Does the nature of distribution limit the reach of films centering African American voices and experiences into “red state America”?

Given the ubiquity of the criminalized black body, and given the widespread practice of blaming Grant or Trayvon Martin for their own deaths, it is disheartening to know that those who continue to peddle and profit in/from anti-black racism will unlikely watch Fruitvale Station.

It is infuriating that those who blame inequality on “single mothers” and “children born out-of-wedlock” will never be forced to digest the beautiful relationship that Tatiana had with her father Oscar, who would be part of that 72% statistic cited without any thought over and over again.

The anger I felt is about the killing of Oscar Grant – and Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ayana Jones-Stanley, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo; yet it was about a theater with only a handful of people; it is about knowledge of multiplexes across the country screening zombie movies and another about a snail rather than films that have the potential to transform a generation.  It is about knowledge that Madea, the Help, or the Butler will more likely be screened than the stories of Oscar Grant or Ruby.

Frustration, sadness, and anger.

Almost 100 years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film steeped in white supremacy and anti-black violence, Fruitvale Station brings a level of black humanity that has remain on the periphery of the Hollywood imagination for a century.  Almost 100 years after the release of a film that celebrated the rise of the Klan as the necessary force to thwart black savagery, Fruitvale Station stepped into a cinematic and larger racial landscape to offer a powerful counter narrative to the anchors of contemporary racism.  Yet, 100 years after Birth of a Nation was celebrated as “history written in lightening,” the prospect of Fruitvale Station receiving similar treatment feels to the right of impossible.

As with the struggle for justice itself, the actual hearing and seeing of Grant, Martin, Diallo, and so many others remains a distant possibility.  As with the activists who have used their cell phones to document the specter of police violence and anti-black/brown racism, Coogler uses his camera to further force a nation to confront these realities.  Fruitvale Station shines a spotlight on this empathy deficit and the denied humanity.  And like the killing of Grant, this is the source of my frustration, sadness, and anger.

But be clear, Fruitvale Station is reality written in lightening; a piercing ray of truth telling that is painful.  It is a disheartening, infuriating, and devastating reality; one that everyone should confront before another train arrives at Fruitvale Station.

***

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