Last Friday night, the department of Africana studies sponsored a free screening of the independent film Fruitvale Station. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, produced by Forest Whitaker and starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station has already won multiple awards. Viewers were also invited to join Professor of History Shanti Singham, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Rhon Manigault-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Neil Roberts and Assistant Professor of Political Science Candis Smith for a discussion in the theater after the screening.
Fruitvale Station begins with footage of a police detainment, run by Oscar Grant and his friends. The shot cuts to black just after viewers witness Oscar being shot in the back while he is held to the ground. This immediately thrusts the audience into the reality of the proceeding film. Coogler then introduces Oscar and his girlfriend Sophina in an intimate scene the morning of Dec. 31, 2008. Oscar shares his New Year’s resolutions with Sophina, and the pair argue about Oscar’s recent infidelity, reconcile and are interrupted by their charming four-year-old daughter, Tatiana.
The entire film follows Oscar’s activities on Dec. 31, humanizing him by portraying his positive and negative choices that day and in the past. Viewers are introduced to Oscar’s extended family at a birthday party for his mother, played by Spencer. All of Coogler’s characters are real and their humanity is emphasized. Spencer performs exceptionally well in the film’s ending scenes, standing as a strong matriarch while quietly breaking down in her own grief. Coogler utilizes close camera angles for a majority of the film, creating an intimacy with the audience. However, Coogler’s most powerful moments are when he keeps the camera back. These shots demonstrate the closeness of Coogler’s family in prayer as well as represent the certainty of the film’s grim end, as when the train flies by and leaves the camera behind on the platform. Likewise, Coogler’s scarcity of soundtrack and score increases the film’s emotive weight.
The only significant critiques of Fruitvale come as Coogler takes creative license, deviating from true events. In a heavy-handed metaphor, Coogler invents a hit-and-run accident involving a pit bull. After futilely yelling after the driver to stop, Coogler holds the dying dog in his arms until the animal stops whimpering. An incredibly sad moment, viewers may find the event’s overtness detracts from the realism of the film. Likewise, Coogler includes a scene in which a pensive Grant drives to a meeting location for a drug deal, but instead dumps his bag of marijuana into the sea despite his desperate need of income. This scene is simply unnecessary; the audience is already sympathetic to Grant, and the sequence comes too close to painting him as a hero.
Similarly, Coogler invents a character named Katie, whom Oscar first encounters and helps in the supermarket. The supermarket scene is believable and enhances the characterization of Oscar. Unfortunately, instead of leaving Katie’s involvement there, Coogler could not resist the urge to bring her character back later in the film, going so far as to include her in the instigation of the fight that leads to Grant’s detainment and death. This insertion of a fictional character into the most crucial part of Grant’s day, once again, felt inauthentic and unbelievable. Simply implying that she filmed the cell phone footage of the incident would have been much more powerful and believable without interfering with any relevant facts of the night.
Despite these brief asides, Fruitvale Station is an incredibly powerful and emotive film, well worth its relatively short run time and particularly impressive as Coogler’s first feature film. It is incredibly relevant to its time, raising issues of persistent racial stereotypes and violence in our purportedly post-racial society. Many audience members were in tears by the film’s end, and the majority stayed for the following short discussion. The professors addressed a student question on the difficulty of discussing race in an organic way at the College, to which Smith responded, “You guys are really nice to each other. You guys never want to hurt each other’s feelings, but you do an injustice to each other by not just saying it … You have to lean in to that discomfort sometimes.” “We pretend that the world isn’t happening [at Williams],” Singham said. He promoted dining hall conversations that are less public and formal than scheduled events and classroom settings. Discussion went on to highlight the prevalence of incidents just like that at Fruitvale, the silence of racial dialog in America and systematic and legal issues like Stand Your Ground laws and the national drug policy.
Showings of Fruitvale Station will continue at Images Cinema on Spring Street through Thursday.