Ryan Cooglar’s debut feature film Fruitvale Station is a prime example of the visual magic that happens when people tell their own stories. Cooglar is a 28-year-old writer and director from the San Francisco Bay area. His film, Fruitvale Station, is based on the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American – also from the Bay area- whose fatal and unlawful shooting by a police officer in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2009 was filmed on a mobile phone by a train passenger and later posted on Youtube. The footage caused uproar and people took to the streets to protest against the unlawful killing, and the decision to release the police officer who only served 11 months of his two-year sentence.
The film, which received financial-backing from Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer (The Help), opens with video footage of a black man (Grant) being shot by a police officer on the platform of a train station. The rest of the film follows Grant (played by Michael B Jordan best known for his role as teenage drug dealer Wallace on The Wire) as he lives his final moments, from picking up his daughter, Tatiana, from school to celebrating his mother’s (played by Octavia Spencer) birthday. It is only at the end of the film that we discover that the account is based on real events.
Despite its success at film festivals including winning an Audience Award and a Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival the film has not done as well as predicted at the box-office and has been completely ignored by the major accolades such as the Oscars, the BAFTA awards and the Golden Globes. There may be a number of reasons for this, notably, that these awards are well known for spurning independent films (Beasts of the Southern Wild being a recent exception at the Oscars) when the film doesn’t have a well-known name at its centre. Another reason may be the timing – Fruitvale was released months before most contenders were released. It may even have been due to the fact that Hollywood had filled its ‘black’ quota for the year with the release of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Justin Chadwick’s Long Walk to Freedom.
The most obvious reason to me is that Hollywood isn’t ready for films that feature black men outside of the recycled (and boring) narratives of slaves/magic negros/ biopics of sportsmen and political figures/ hyper-masculine drug lords and general evildoers. Paired with the fact the film is ultimately about police brutality – an issue that also heavily plagues the UK – and the unwarranted yet common killing of innocent black men by white men, it is no surprise, then, that Fruitvale went unnoticed at this year’s award season.
Cooglar, a film-graduate who boasts a number of short films, has been working as a counselor at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, where his father also works, since the age of 21. His depiction of Grant as a caring and effusive young father has been the subject of critique. In an article entitled ‘Fruitvale Station’ Is Loose With The Facts About Oscar Grant, Forbes magazine argues that the film “tries to fit a halo on its subject”.
It seems that Cooglar’s portrayal of Grant as a multi-dimensional character is too radical for Hollywood audiences; the two scenes that have caused the most ruckus amongst critics are the fabricated scenes of Grant nursing a bulldog that gets run-over, and his renouncement of drug-dealing (the income generated from this helps him to support his immediate family as well as his sister) by throwing away his last stash of cannabis. Perhaps Forbes would have been less offended if Cooglar had stuck to the all-too-familiar and regurgitated (mis)representation of the absent black father whose only family is his ‘street’ family. Perhaps, Hollywood would have been more comfortable with the stereotypical, one-dimensional characters that negate the emotional and human experiences of black men.
The flashbacks to Grant’s time in prison, for me, is necessary in creating a true picture of Grant’s life – it’s no secret that black men are over-represented in American prisons, but it seems Hollywood would have preferred it if that had been the only depiction we had of Grant – as a criminal.
The most threatening element of the film for Hollywood is the fact that it is based on a true account – Grant’s story was already known before Cooglar made the film, and the timing of the film – the release came the day before George Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter and second-degree murder after shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The two most harrowing scenes of the film are the ones of actual footage of Grant being shot by the police officer at the beginning of the film and again the actual footage of his daughter, as she stands with the crowd of protesters outside BART police station at the end of the film. The eerie realisation that Tatiana, Sophina (Grant’s girlfriend) and Wanda (Grant’s mother) are not fictional characters further adds to the social and moral urgency of the film.
In addition to challenging the stereotype of the absent black father by creating multiple scenes with Grant laughing and playing with his daughter, Fruitvale also captures the relationship between Grant and his family, including the relatives of his Latina girlfriend. Again, this is something that is never explored in mainstream film and television where the only relationship we see between African-Americans and Latinos are the feuds and gang-wars between the two.
The hand-held camera technique, which creates an intimate atmosphere and allows the audience to establish a relationship with Grant, the brief scene with the black lesbian couple and the multiple scenes of Grant laughing and smiling are the raw nuances that are overlooked when Hollywood tells stories of black people. Cooglar and Jordan are reminders of why there needs to be more people of colour not just starring in the films but also making them.
Fruitvale Station is in cinemas across the UK now
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Christina Fonthes is a Manchester-based translator and Afrofeminist blogger. Born in Kinshasa, Congo and raised in London, she is an advocate for LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) rights. She is a founding member of Rainbow Noir, a safe space created for and by Queer People of Colour in Manchester. Christina is a regular contributor at Black Feminists Manchester She can be found on Twitter at @CongoMuse and Musings of a Congolese Lesbian blog