I felt sadly unable to share in the joy that others voiced after Clinton’s resounding victory in the presidential debate on Monday night. I was too gripped by the candidates’ responses to the question about race and the criminal justice system. Although Trump’s answer was straightforwardly disqualifying, and I’m heartened by Clinton’s sincerity and devotion to unraveling the pathologies of penal power, she nonetheless left me dissatisfied by what felt to me like an anemic answer. I’m evidently still processing the evening. In the meantime, I wanted to re-post a review I wrote in 2013 of Fruitvale Station, which appeared before places like Ferguson, Missouri entered the national consciousness, because that film that has since crystallized in my mind as a helpful touchstone for my thinking on the subject.
Hollywood biopics have become particularly popular in the last few years. Typically, these films focus on the life of élites: in the last two years alone Hollywood has released The Iron Lady, Hitchcock, Jobs, Lincoln, and the forthcoming Diana, to name a few. This week’s movie recommendation is a biopic of a very different kind, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013). While you might have to look around for a cinema near you that’s still showing it, by virtue of its timeliness it seemed appropriate to fill this week’s film recommendation slot.
In addition to departing from the typical biopic format in choosing to focus on the life of an ordinary person rather than an élite, the scope of the film also departs from convention in limiting itself to one day – the protagonist’s last. It tells the story of Oscar Julius Grant III, who was the victim of an involuntary manslaughter by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer on New Year’s Eve, 2008. It eschews any focus on the life of the offending police officer, and the sparse epilogue that describes subsequent events (like the officer’s trial and sentence) draws attention to the fact that the film is foremost about Grant.
There is no doubt about how the film ends – the first shot of the film is one of the videos recorded from the camera phone of a passenger on the BART train that captures the officer firing the fatal bullet. As with most biopics, the suspense isn’t in where the film is going but rather in how it gets there. This makes the first half of the film a little less engaging than the second half. We follow Grant living out the mundane existence of someone struggling to make ends meet, kicking a drug habit, taking his daughter to school, and flirting with girls at the store. It effectively establishes him as a real person, in whom we invest our sympathies.
As far as I can tell, the film’s release was timed to coincide with the Zimmerman verdict. If this was unintentional, then at the very least, it resonated with the media attention stirred by recent events. However, while both race and the criminal justice system play an important role in the film’s plot, this is emphatically not a film about Race and the Criminal Justice System. One of the police officers brutally picks on black suspects while leaving white suspects alone, but Coogler’s decision not to dwell on whether Grant’s homicide was intentional removes any comparison between Grant and Trayvon Martin. This is a film about the sadness of a life cut short by human folly, not whether the outcome was just.
I can only assume that Coogler applies a fair bit of dramatic license in telling the story of Grant’s last day. Grant’s daughter plays out the conventional tragic conceit of the protagonist’s family member protesting the father’s departure because of the portent of his demise (Caesar’s Calpurnia comes to mind). The reverse is also present, in which Grant is presented with signs of imminent doom, and yet he presses on, rendering himself complicit in his own fate (Oedipus, anyone?): he witnesses the capricious killing of a dog (in the shadow of a BART station, no less), and symbolically refuses to remove the shirt stained with the deceased dog’s blood; he acquiesces to his mother’s and his girlfriend’s separate insistences, contrary to his own original intention, that he both celebrate New Year’s in the city and that he travel there by BART rather than by car; and the fight that precipitates Grant’s detainment and death is caused when the girl with whom he flirted earlier that day draws the attention of a former convict with beef against him.
Nonetheless, the symbolism and imagery aren’t hackneyed, the direction is crisp, and the acting is up to par. While the film starts slow, it gains momentum. By the end, and indeed overall, the film is deeply engrossing. Go watch Fruitvale, if you can find a cinema nearby that’s still showing it.