9:25 a.m. July 19, 2013

Fruit of The Doomed

In all my years of watching films in theaters, I’ve never heard people cry like they did at the end of “Fruitvale Station.” Steady weeping. There was a young woman sitting a few rows behind me who sobbed aloud through the death scenes, murmuring “Oh God, oh God” between sobs. It was terrible, hearing it.

When it was over people filed out as somberly as if they’d been attending a funeral. The ushers, teenage guys, were waiting outside the doors to clean up the theater, and their faces wore embarrassed grimaces at the evidence of so much emotion.

People in the lobby seemed stunned by the experience. Outside, a tall elderly man walked past me into the sunshine, saying in an awed voice to his stricken wife, “Never heard people break down like that. Everybody breaking down…”

Of course, the film might not have such a devastating impact everywhere, I don’t know. I saw it in Oakland, where Oscar Grant was killed, so it was a hometown experience. When I walked into the theater it was already packed—a diverse crowd like most Bay Area crowds, but skewing older and African-American/Latino. Many worn-looking, graying couples you can tell have been through a lot together.

Shit, I thought immediately, this is gonna be bad. I gripped both armrests and prepared to suffer. The film is structured in a way designed to harrow up your soul. It’s a docu-drama about the last twenty-four hours of Oscar Grant’s life, which are shown in flashback. The framing intro and concluding scenes are set in the Fruitvale BART station where Grant and his friends had their fateful encounter with the BART police. Since everyone knows what happened there that New Year’s Eve in 2009—at least, everyone around where I live knows—the power of the film lies in taking us along for what amounts to a long, strangely meandering death march.

Each casual exchange between Grant and his family, Grant and his friends, Grant and total strangers, is made portentous by his imminent death. The mere mention of taking BART on New Year’s Eve so as not to risk driving drunk is a wrenching moment in the film that resulted in the whole audience producing a soft communal moan, because it’s Grant’s mother who urges him to take BART, and how’s she going to feel when the worst happens? Or rather, how she must’ve felt...

In short, immense pathos throughout.

I hate immense pathos. Especially the kind that makes people file out at the end damp and despondent. Admittedly, this is where I part company with most viewers and most other film critics who will review the film. We’ll all say the same thing up to a point: very poignant film, remarkable achievement for novice writer-director Ryan Coogler, fine performances by all the leads, especially Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant and Octavia Spencer as his mother, impressively controlled tone, some very nice camerawork. Made a big impression at the Sundance Film Festival, will still be making a big impression when it’s time to nominate films for Academy Awards. Absolutely.

But…how do I say this? There’s something very uneasy-making about this film’s approach, as manifestly effective as it is—at least if the effect you want is to make people cry and despair and long for something better from American culture that they don’t ever expect to get.

And I couldn’t help but feel that crying is not what we want to be doing right now. Sitting in the theater listening to the sobs, I was also thinking, what if the George Zimmerman trial verdict is announced while we’re in here? And we go outside and are told he’s been acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin? What then? Everyone cries harder? Or maybe we’d all shake off our doldrums and just start marching down the street in a fury, an instantaneous angry mob, shouting—and it cheered me right up to imagine it.

But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the dispirited, tearful plod out to the street, and the dispersal. The Zimmerman acquittal verdict came a few hours later, and there was a long lull before any rumors of protests in the area were even reported.

There’s no question that “Fruitvale Station” has power—the question is, the power to do what? Almost any film dealing with those events at the BART station would stir up audiences, especially in America. In brief, the crucial moment involved a young black man lying face-down on concrete, and a white cop on top of him trying to subdue him more thoroughly, who shot him in the back. The young black man, Oscar Grant, died next morning at the hospital. The white cop, Johannes Mehserle, also young, claimed he thought he was wielding his taser, not his gun.

In the weeks and months that followed there were protests, riots, accusations of police aggression and abuse and instigation, claims of a BART evidence cover-up, and widespread outrage overall. There were also plenty of justifications and rationalizations by BART police and officials and their supporters, claiming Grant and his friends resisted arrest, they were drunk and high, the BART officers felt threatened by them as well as the angry crowd, and after all, Grant might have been going for a gun. Trial result: Mehserle convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to two years in prison, served eleven months.

Plenty to cry about there, any way you slice it. And maybe the theatrical run of “Fruitvale Station,” resulting in audiences in tears everywhere it plays, will prove to be everything the filmmakers hope. The producers, the Weinstein brothers, are displaying cards at the film’s various theatrical venues that call for social action of some kind, as reported in Mother Jones:

As stated in big bold letters at the top of the post-screening business cards, they're inviting everyone to "Commit to end social injustice in the name of Oscar Grant." (A fitting sentiment, although the enticement of winning a gift card is jarring in this context.) The film's website encourages visitors to share stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying, social injustice or mistreatment with their "I AM __" campaign. And of course they're taking to social networking….Wish them luck. They'll need it.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, though: Weinstein Brothers, “business cards,” a website, a grab-bag of online testimonials about “mistreatment.”

But there’s also the film’s clear aim, as Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress puts it in an interview with writer-director Ryan Coogler, “to challenge audiences’ perceptions of young black men–and what kind of justice they deserve.” Coogler himself sees a big part of his job to be changing peoples’ attitudes by presenting Oscar Grant as a sympathetic human being:

I think that sympathy, in many cases, it comes from just being intimate with the person throughout the film. And I think that any character, no matter how deplorable, no matter what they’re struggling with, no matter what they’re dealing with, if the character feels real and genuine to the audience, and you’re spending time with them–and with Oscar it’s very intimate, you’re spending a whole day with him–I think it’s naturally a human thing to grow sympathy for somebody who you’re around. It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you don’t know. It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you’ve never been around, and you’ve only gotten shorthanded, hackneyed descriptions of somebody through media or through what you see on the news or what you see in pop culture. What we hope to do with the film is just to bring people close to this character.

I suppose this must be considered laudable, or at least necessary, creating sympathy for the “character” named Oscar Grant? But it’s hard not to feel that it’s absolutely fucking crazy, all this special pleading. Look how this young black man in the film is actually quite nice when you get to know him, and therefore shouldn’t be shot in the back by a cop. Look how his family loves him, and he’s nice to his daughter and everything! His daughter’s cute, right? So maybe we can agree, him getting shot by a cop was a bad thing?

As far as I understand how the law is supposed to work, you can be a complete piece of shit, without a cute daughter, and still have a right not to be shot in the back while lying on the ground in police custody. Turning that chaotic mess at the Fruitvale BART station into a smoothly fictionalized drama “based on a true story” seems wrongheaded to me. I don’t like docu-dramas as a rule, anyway. You never know what’s been “dramatized” a bit too freely, or even entirely made-up, and it casts doubt over everything you see. At the end of the movie, for example, there’s a weird the-gang’s-all-here quality when a several “characters” introduced in widely different situations in the narrative suddenly appear for the climactic scene. Oscar Grant comes face to face on BART with the nasty Aryan Brotherhood-type guy who threatened him earlier in the prison flashback-within-a-flashback scene, and that’s how the fight starts that leads to his arrest. And he also runs into the pretty white woman he sort of hit on/helped out in the grocery story that morning, who becomes a witness to his arrest and records it on her cellphone.

You think, that CAN’T be for real that they were both there. And sure enough: there are no reports I could find of any Aryan Brotherhood-type enemy in the fight on the train, which supposedly involved about twenty people, and Oscar Grant wasn’t one of them. Also, Coogler acknowledges that he made the pretty white woman a “composite character,” combining two different women the real Oscar Grant met that day.

In including her character, Coogler wanted to show that there were people of all races filming the violent arrest of Grant and his friends—it didn’t break down along neat racial lines, white BART cops vs. black arrestees and black supporters in the crowd. It’s part of an overall agenda the film has, showing the racial diversity of the Bay Area and how complex the interactions are. There are agenda items being checked off throughout this film that are sometimes pretty distracting.

Considerably more controversy has been generated about the fictional dog-killing scene. (Yeah, it needed but this, a dead dog on top of all the other heart-breakers.) Grant is shown stopping at a gas station, where he sees a stray pit bull and stops to pet him. As soon as you see the dog, you know it’s DOA, and sure enough in a minute there’s a screech of tires and a yelp and the bloody dog is dying in Oscar Grant’s arms. There are complaints about how the film is overdoing it here, trying to manipulate and provoke audience empathy by using the ol’ kill-the-dog stunt.

According to writer-director Coogler, that wasn’t the reasoning behind the scene. He justifies the fictionalizing by claiming that, while there’s evidence and witness accounts for most of what Oscar Grant did during his last twenty-four hours that Coogler tried to portray accurately, during one short stretch of time nobody seems to know what Grant was doing. So the director got creative and symbolic with the dog scene, as he explains in a Huffington Post interview:

The inspiration came from a few things. Oscar was always talking about getting a house and one of the reasons he wanted to get a house is because he'd have a backyard for the first time and he could own a dog. They were in apartments and he always wanted a dog. And he wanted a pit bull. That was the kind of dog that he likes ... it's interesting because when you hear about pit bulls in the media, what do you hear about?...[Y]ou hear about them doing horrible things. You never hear about a pit bull doing anything good in the media. And they have a stigma to them ... and, in many ways, pit bulls are like young African-American males. Whenever you see us in the news, it's for getting shot and killed or shooting and killing somebody -- for being a stereotype. And that's what you see for African-Americans in the media and the news.

Personally, I don’t like it when books or movies kill off animals in order to symbolize something about human protagonists or provide a means by which they mature. (The boy had to kill the fawn, which symbolized his youth, in order to become a man!) But I admit it’s a surefire slayer, emotion-wise.

But the biggest emotional impact is created by Coogler’s flashback structure, which casts an aura of sad inevitability over Oscar Grant’s death. This seems questionable as a strategy. The use of the flashback structure, circling you back to a tragic scenario you are anticipating through the film while knowing there’s no preventing it, as if the gods had willed it, can be very moving. It’s a narrative tool used to great effect in many excellent old film melodramas, too. But it’s a choice I wish hadn’t been made here. It seemed to me there were other, better ways. The film’s opening footage points to a few better ways. It’s actual cellphone-camera footage of the BART station fiasco, which was filmed by many eyewitnesses. It’s a scene crackling with energy, though all we can see, past black-silhouetted onlookers, is the shaky footage of several young men sitting up against the wall with cops standing over them, under cold fluorescent lighting. There’s a cacophony of wild yelling, things like, “Come on! Let ‘em go!” and an intense sense—even if you didn’t expect the gunshot you’re about to hear—that something terrible is liable to happen any second if something isn’t done to defuse the situation.

But it’s the raw uncertainty and immediacy that’s so compelling about the footage, and the sense that a hundred options were percolating in those moments and at least nine-five of them were better than those pursued by the BART police, the ones with the guns and all the authority. The style and structure of “Fruitvale Station” smooths out all the crazy energy and chaos and possibility of that footage, and makes it all depressingly certain: the talented actor playing Oscar Grant must die, or rather, must enact a proxy martyrdom. He moves through much of the movie like a character who’s received “the black spot,” a fitting symbol for the Doomed Black Male in America, and is henceforth romantically fated to die a violent death. At the end of the film, the BART arrests and the killing are re-enacted, all evenly shot and warmly lit, and the chaos conveyed is the carefully controlled chaos of filmmakers with a pardonable desire to get beautifully composed shots that cut together well. There’s no return at the end of the film to the earlier footage of the actual event, which was electrifying but somehow not saddening, which had no quality of tragedy in it even when the gun went off.

Ryan Coogler’s film is very sad and will make you cry, and maybe that’s a good thing. I acknowledge it’s important to devote time and care to such portrayals of abuse and injustice, and Coogler has certainly done that. But still, I’d much rather have seen a choppy, cutty, galvanizing mess of a documentary that jolted everyone out of their seats yelling Joe Hill’s old line: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”