Sometimes what's wrong with a movie suddenly no longer matters. The rickety construction of a story, the awkward shift in dramatic tone, the acutely earnest attempt to find the right wattage for a martyr's halo: They're beside the point. Sometimes a movie just needs to show us the light. Sometimes it just needs us to see it. I saw Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station for the first time last January in a packed house at the Sundance Film Festival. Coogler had made a film (it was just Fruitvale then) about the life and death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American who was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on the Fruitvale BART Station platform early on New Year's Day, 2009.
Well before the movie had ended — by the scene in which Oscar's mother, Wanda Johnson (Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and his friends have assembled in the hospital waiting room, praying and worrying — you could hear people in the audience begin to lose it. The college-age woman to my left was sobbing so hard that I closed my notebook and put my arm around her. This movie had reduced people to their most vulnerable selves. It opened in American theaters two weekends ago, and the crying hasn't stopped. Some of the current reaction is compounded by timeliness. Fruitvale Station opened the weekend that a jury in Sanford, Florida, acquitted George Zimmerman of manslaughter and second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.
These were two different incidents with similarly grim outcomes: the fatal shooting of a young, black, unarmed man. The Weinstein Company isn't selling Coogler's movie as an explicit tie-in. It doesn't have to. Word of mouth is preparing people for what passes for catharsis. But the gathering force behind the film and the devastated response to it obscure the shortcomings of its screenwriting and direction. Coogler is a 27-year-old graduate of USC's film program, this is his first feature, and his determination to explain Grant gets wedged between authenticity and contrivance. The film opens with what looks like camera-phone footage of the actual shooting. The action is hard to make out — there are bodies down on the platform and cops standing above them. You can hear passengers yelling stuff like "Eh!" at the police. The pop of a gunshot, however, is decisive, as is the disbelief of witnesses standing on the parked train outside the camera's frame: "That's fucked up!"
The film then backs up to the previous morning and follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) from his waking moment beside Sophina, a tough-love Latina and the mother of his daughter, who is convinced that Oscar has cheated on her. Coogler makes this a last-day movie, and he bears down hard on the significant and mundane details he has affixed to Oscar's life: dropping his daughter off at day care, getting back the supermarket job he recently lost because he was chronically late, finding a way to help his sister out with the rent, picking up crabs for Wanda's birthday party.
At the supermarket, Oscar meets a young woman named Katie (Ahna O'Reilly) who's standing in front of the glass at the seafood counter at a loss as to how to embark on a fish fry. Katie is white, and her cluelessness gives Oscar something to flirt with (you can see where Sophina's coming from). He actually puts Katie on the phone with his grandmother while he chases down his old boss and begs to be rehired. The frustration that wells up in him comes across as anger. A lot of his sentences end playfully with "brah" — "What's up, brah?"; "Nah, brah." With the store manager, the desperation in that "brah" verges on threat.
It's a set of emotions that Jordan, who was previously best known as the raw-talent quarterback Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights, seems more than capable of complicating. But Coogler pushes Oscar from dilemma to dilemma, and Jordan, as good as he is, never gets to dig into a fully realized character. The script doesn't stay in any one place long enough. Oscar has to comfort a dog that has just been hit by a car whose driver has sped off. He has to recall his stint in prison on drugs-and-weapons charges, including a visit from Wanda that his quick temper ruined. He has to contemplate whether selling the bag of weed in the waist of his jeans is worth the risk. He has to pick up his daughter from day care, get to his mother's, and celebrate New Year's. He's having a version of the day Henry Hill has before the feds arrest him in Goodfellas.
In themselves, these scenes aren't terribly convincing. Coogler makes Oakland a character, but he's forcing the mundane details of Oscar's last day to cohere with local insouciance. The train ride across into San Francisco feels like a celebratory parody of Bay Area life. Two of Oscar's friends flirt with a lesbian couple smoking in their seats. Somebody puts on some hip-hop and the entire multiracial car starts to party. The ride back is a different story, and features an improbable, almost farcical number of characters coincidentally jammed into the same car. A fight breaks out. The train is stopped. BART police detail a handful of passengers, including Oscar, who gets into a vulgar verbal altercation with the large, bruising white cop played by the Canadian actor Kevin Durand. These are Coogler's best moments. He's able to restage and slightly reimagine an event captured by the cell phones of the passengers still on the parked train. The men rounded up and seated against the wall are agitated but not humorless. One guy flirts with a nervous-looking female officer.
The movie doesn't do a lot of building or foreshadowing. As it is, your pulse goes up every time Coogler furnishes a shot of a bulleting BART train and the accompanying whooshing scream produced by metal, velocity, and air. It's an alarming sound that, under these circumstances, portends death. But in emphasizing the banality of Oscar's life, the movie, until its conclusion, feels banal, too. We spend the film dreadfully aware that it must culminate on the platform with Grant on his stomach and his hands behind his back. Until the moment at the station, these scenes are looking for somewhere compelling to go without ever figuring out where that place is. You wonder if Coogler would have felt freer had Grant somehow lived that night, if the director weren't put in a position where he felt the need to honor the dead by bringing him to dramatic life. But he believes in his ambition.
The reaction to the movie trumps ambivalence about how it was made. To some extent, what's upsetting people is that Coogler has crafted a gentle portrait of a man we know will die at movie's end. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, that empathetic gentleness suddenly feels crucial. It feels like a tonic. I saw the film for a second time last Friday, and I left with a long face. There was no one for me to comfort this time. Those weeping around me had brought their own shoulders to cry on.
The wrongful death of another young black man doesn't cry out for a president's condolences. There are pastors and deacons for that. Anderson Cooper used his prime-time news hour to provide a sort of town-hall conversation about the reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, which included a lawyer for the prosecution and some prominent black men, like the education reformer Geoffrey Canada, who shared a story about a run-in one of his sons had with the police.
But if the president happens to think that he could have been Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin, it would seem that a nation racially divided between empathy and apathy would benefit from receiving his prompt illumination of that fact. After the verdict, he issued a firm statement affirming the verdict and urging calm and reflection. It was inadequate but seemed right for a president who was criticized for commenting on Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley's arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The ensuing meeting among the sergeant, the professor, the president, and the vice-president proved only what a CBS show based on a famous quote by Rodney King might look like. But Martin's death and Zimmerman's trial remained on the president's radar. When almost a week had passed without a spoken word from him, the frustrated assumption was that it would not come. But the public continued to wait.
And so last Friday Barack Obama came out to a mostly empty White House Press Room — the reporters thought it'd be another regular session of parried explication with Jay Carney — and joked that the press corps treated his press secretary shabbily. Someone told him that a lot of people are out reporting the news that Detroit had declared bankruptcy. He made some announcements — that the White House was scheduling some other briefings on major issues like immigration and the economy. Then he said he wanted to talk about something else, what he referred to as the "Trayvon Martin ruling." This was already interesting because I, and a lot of other people, had been referring to the ruling as the Zimmerman verdict. But Obama's a lawyer, and his choice of words was shrewd. His emphasis on Martin aligned with what an overwhelming number of people felt about the trial and the verdict: They were actually a referendum on the victim, who he was, who he was not, and how he was supposed to be.
Obama stood at the podium, amid the steady clatter of camera shutters, and offered to Martin's parents his and his wife's thoughts and prayers. He set aside the legal issue because that had been settled — the judge, he said, was professional, and the jury's reasonable doubt verdict stands. He wanted to talk about the national environment — the word he used was more academic. His word was "context." He said he wanted to explain the history through which African Americans perceive the shooting, the case, and the verdict.
He then proceeded to offer a kind of inarguable empathy: Thirty-five years ago he could have been Trayvon Martin. He went further. He might be the president, but he once was like lots of his black peers in this country: deemed suspicious.
There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often and I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
He said that African Americans understand the disparity in the writing and enforcement of the nation's laws. And he also said that black people understand their disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system. This is an important distinction because it underscores the criticism of the popular reaction to the verdict that insists that African Americans naively or conveniently tend to ignore the reality that most crimes committed against black men are by other black men. But name a major American city that doesn't have some neighborhood stop-the-violence outreach group that has held vigils or demonstrations when yet another young black child is killed by a member of that community.
The president laid the groundwork for understanding a crucial aspect of the reaction to the verdict. He was asking sympathetic and curious listeners to consider that the outcry is not about one race's oppression of another. It's about the system of demoralization and dehumanization that sometimes keeps black people from seeming human even to themselves: epidemiology and statistics and diagnoses, the pathologization of black existence. The statistics make blacks look sick and hopeless, weak and unlovable. I've seen black women clutch their purses, too.
The numbers explain the violence and crime and appearances within the criminal justice system. They reinforce fear and low expectations. But the president made clear that neither he nor black Americans were making excuses for the facts, just that they come with the baggage of the country's history of racial violence. What's frustrating is the manner in which that history goes unacknowledged in a statement like "get over it" or "go back to Africa," which a caller wearily told black people to do in a voice mail left for Washington Post columnist Clinton Yates last week.
The president said that African Americans would just like for that context not to be denied. He then posited — remarkably, it must be said — that if Martin were a white teenager under the same circumstances, the reaction to his death would not have been the same. He asked how we'd have felt if Martin were armed and of age and — feeling threatened — had shot Zimmerman.
Obama went on: How do we raise up young black men? How can we demonstrate that this country values them and wants to invest in them and make them feel like they're members of society? He dismissed a national conversation on race because such a thing further entrenches people in their respective positions. Instead, he implored us to commit at least to the kind of casual soul-searching one does at a red light or in line at CVS:
Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would be, I think, an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
He then said he believed the children are the future — his are, at least, and their friends. Their grasp on this, he said, is better than that of his generation, better than that of his parents' and grandparents' generations. The young bring promise of a more perfect union — and with that he was gone.
Obama wasn't going for the rafters. These were remarks. This was not a speech. He delivered his thoughts in the manner of someone who wants to provide context. His delivery was lawyerly. It was too dry to spark the normal fires of outrage. It was very "lest you get the wrong impression." But in those 19 minutes, he managed to demonstrate one way a black president can discuss race and debunk the myth that his election was the cure for racism.
It's unclear how much longer we could have gone on without him daring to speak. His silence might have caused a riot sooner than any shock over the verdict. I don't know that Obama was elected for moments like last Friday. But it's like, while he's there in office, why not? Why not speak to an incident that, as he imagines it, could have happened to him?
Amazingly, the conversation and demonstrations around the verdict and its aftermath feel very much of a piece with Obama's demeanor. They feel rational and reasoned, as opposed to righteous and resentful. His tenor really has affected some of the nation's discourse. Some of America has learned from him to be cooler, more contemplative; to be searching and a touch more objective. Coogler's movie is all of these things. It is a film of context, adjusted for the movies, but not out of proportion with the essence of who Oscar Grant was. To understand where we are, it might help to remember from whence we've come.
In the summer of 1989, for instance, people were scared. They were afraid that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing would pour gasoline on New York's stratospheric racial tensions and light the match. The movie is set on a sweltering day on a block in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and culminates in the death of one character and a riot over his murder. It's a perfect encapsulation of a particular era in American social politics and a staggering work of art. Lee was deemed a troublemaker and was treated like a cocky terrorist, the fear being, in part, that a movie whose climax is a multiracial brawl will surely beget actual multiracial brawls. But as much as Lee was offering breaking news, he was also just catching the movies up to history. He was providing a kind of catharsis.
But attitudes in politics change all the time. Coogler's debut is like the debuts of John Singleton, Matty Rich, and Allen and Albert Hughes: It's about the hassles of modern black male life in America. His debut is notable not for its anger or nihilism but for its calm. Coogler could have included the protests and riots that happened in the days after Oscar Grant's death and weeks before Obama's inauguration. He could have gone into the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant. But he captures the altered tenor of depictions of black life in popular culture: Jay Z is a sports agent, the Roots are Jimmy Fallon's house band, Chris Rock is playing a droopy dad in an Adam Sandler movie.
The collective reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is striking. These protests and demonstrations aren't directed solely at another race, at white people (black people know Zimmerman is also half-Peruvian and that the president is half-white). The outrage is directed at a system that's demonstrably harmful to non-white people. It's the institutions and all they've wrought that people are sick of. We don't yet live in the world the Supreme Court thought we did when it struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act and weakened the case for affirmative action. More than ever, we live in a time of racism without racists, just racist laws, racist policies, and racist ideas.
This is how the writing on Mad Men can be so sagacious and imaginative about life in America for one set of characters and so casually insulting for another — not because its mastermind, Matthew Weiner, is a racist but because auteurist television is capacious and permissive enough to subscribe to the institutions of racism, the racism you sense, the racism you breathe, the racism that makes you turn to your friend and say, "That just happened, right?" There is n-word racism. Then there are the lingering, toxic particles that centuries of n-word racism leave in the air. We all breathe them, but we don't always like to talk about it. So it is heresy to mention that, say, the strategic use of Planet of the Apes in the same Mad Men episode that featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination might itself be heretical. It's still hard to talk about negative depictions of race in culture without comments sections and Twitter feeds turning infernal. We're breathing the same air, and yet we're not.
Perceptively, the president picked up on the central frustration with the calls for a national conversation. Lots of people want to talk, but fewer want to listen. This is also how it has always been at the movies and on a lot of television. Hollywood tells the world what life is like for black Americans without black Americans being able to say what life is like for themselves.
In its way, 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.
It sounds corny. But urgency supersedes that corniness. Oscar Grant is what's missing from movies about young black men. The movie strives to restore to Grant the individuality that the symbolism of tragedy took away. Coogler's portrait affixes a human face on ones that hoodies willfully obscure. The film arrives in the moment after the predicted rage turned out to be something a lot stranger and more profound than flashes of fury. No one threw a trash can through a window, as Lee's character notoriously does in his movie. Sal's Pizzeria didn't burn to the ground. Instead of acting up and acting out after the Zimmerman verdict, people began to turn inward, to wring their hands and search their souls. No one knows yet how to break new ground, not even the president. However, there's a sense that the angry, old solutions will no longer cut it. We might be out of cheeks to turn, but we're also out of trash cans.