Art that "humanizes" a subject is trying to do a certain version of the Lord's work: the work of absolute acceptance in the presence of all the information. It's only necessary when there's been dehumanization, that opposite work we've ascribed to the divine: judgment, categorizing certain people as good and others as evil. To rehumanize means bringing the downed up or the risen down, and in the movie Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is the downed man brought back up. The movie is brilliant. It also leaves you with the perfectly appropriate feeling of being furious that it exists at all.
Oscar Grant was the unarmed 22-year-old black man who was shot to death by a transit cop in an Oakland train station—Fruitvale Station—on January 1, 2009. At trial, the officer convinced the jury that he mistook his gun for a Taser. Convicted of involuntary manslaughter, he served 11 months and was home before the year was out.
Some people get the benefit of the doubt. Every piece of research data there is—and I'm sure counter-arguers are already lining up in the wings, but the data will destroy them in a hot minute—will tell you that these people, those who get the benefit of every doubt, are not young black men in America in 2013. In a TV interview after the Trayvon Martin case was closed earlier this month, Florida juror B37 twice said she was absolutely positive that George Zimmerman's "heart was in the right place," referring to the man who, when all is said and done, racially profiled, then without cause and against warnings approached, then shot and killed a black teenager—in his words from when he first saw the young man, just a "punk"—for being there in his gated community. There was no legal reason for juror B37 to speculate on what was in Zimmerman's heart. But she went much further than acquitting him. She said he was a good man, a good man. It was crucially important to her to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The night the verdict came down on Zimmerman, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb was in a movie theater watching an early preview of Fruitvale Station. When he left, he wrote, "Much of the audience sat quietly sobbing as the closing credits rolled, moved by the narrative of a young black man, unarmed and senselessly gone." They were about to get possibly worse news, when a few minutes later, word emerged from Florida that Zimmerman had, legally, done nothing wrong. Cobb wrote: "The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it's the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty."
Is Oscar Grant on trial in Fruitvale Station? Yeah, he is. That's not what the filmmakers and actors say they were trying to do—they want to humanize him, they've explained in interviews. But it was inevitable in some ways that Grant gets re-prosecuted here in an alternative realm, by a jury of his actual peers. This is a movie with a nearly all-black cast, made by a young black male director, and it probably isn't going to be seen by George Zimmerman (though if it is, I'd like to hear what he thinks of it).
The young filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, also of the Bay Area, has stressed his life's similarities to Grant's. Coogler followed the story and the protests before he decided to make the movie. He worked with Grant's family to get the feeling and substance of Grant's character right. He got permission from BART to shoot the murder scene on the very platform where it happened. But he also comes from a worldview that knows that the white world and the black world are not the same. It's kind of a throwaway joke in the movie when the sister jokingly warns Grant not to get their mom one of those crazy-white birthday cards, but it's also a reminder that there are all sorts of things, big and small, that white people think aren't race-related, but that only aren't race-related for white people. That backdrop is as important as anything else in this movie, more important even than the horrible drama of the killing itself.
The actors leading Fruitvale Station—Michael B. Jordan (The Wire), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and Melonie Diaz (Lords of Dogtown)—are among the best alive, and at the top of their game. It's hard not to imagine that if these actors and characters were white, this movie would be a shoo-in both as critical darling and commercial hit, and best picture—some Tom Hanks–level shit. As it is, it's a Sundance-sweeping indie with a limited release.
"How accurate is Fruitvale Station?" writes Aisha Harris on Slate. Everybody's gonna ask. Harris discovered that Coogler sought as much truth as he could find, doing interviews and reading transcripts (and using, at the movie's start, one of the multiple eyewitness videos of the shooting), and then he filled in the rest. In the end, Coogler chose to make a fine-boned movie that follows a single day in Grant's life, his final day. So he used a wealth of details to make mundanity sing.
The movie isn't perfect: One wrong note is an invented scene involving a pit bull at a gas station. But Coogler does end that scene with a far quieter and less manipulative visual symbol, the camera lingering for a second, after Grant passes out of its sight, on the larger environment of an eerily empty gas station in a forgotten part of an otherwise busy city.
A more important scene happens in the grocery store where Grant is picking up fish for his mother's birthday (his last day, December 31, 2008, was her birthday). Grant does a good deed for one person, and then jarringly issues a threat to another. You see Coogler plainly tangling with the most profound ethical conflicts, fighting against not only the bigotry and blithe ignorance of racism in America, but also against the crooked craving of any audience for a perfectly packaged victim, the Upstanding Young Man. Ultimately, you need only ask yourself: Why does this man have to prove he doesn't deserve to be killed? In our culture, who has to prove themselves and who doesn't?