The release of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's mournfully thrilling debut feature, coincided with the jury verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Some would have it that too much was made of that coincidence, but my heart and mind tell me that isn't so. I read the papers; I watch the news. It is impossible to read a paper like The Washington Post and not read every day of the violent deaths of young black men. It isn't just the Metro section; the Sept. 24 Post contained a review of Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped. Ward's memoir is an elegy to her brother Joshua, killed by a drunk driver, and four other young men she knew while growing up in Mississippi. One young man was shot to death, one was a suicide, one was killed in another auto accident, and one died from a drug-induced heart attack. "I carry the weight of grief even as I struggle to live," Ward writes at the book's end. "I understand what it feels like to be under siege."
Fruitvale Station evokes that state of siege in its portrayal of the last day of the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man in Oakland, Calif., who was shot to death by a transit policeman in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009.
The film begins with the actual footage—recorded on a cell phone—of the train platform scuffle that ended with the shooting of a prone, handcuffed Grant. It then shifts to Grant's apartment, not quite 24 hours earlier, where Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is explaining as fast as he can to his live-in girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) that the phone calls to him from another woman meant nothing.
Fruitvale Station proceeds from there, an hour-by-hour recounting of Grant's last day, up to the time of the shooting and the frantic, unsuccessful efforts of surgeons to save his life. The entire film takes place during that day, except for a brief flashback from about a year earlier showing a visiting-day argument between Grant, in prison for drug dealing, and Wanda Johnson (Octavia Spencer), his fed-up mother. Johnson is trying in that flashback to instill some tough love in her son, and the bulk of the movie shows Grant trying to act on what his mother told him.
The Oscar Grant of Fruitvale Station is kindhearted and well-meaning, but also volatile and undisciplined. He's the good-cop dad to Sophina's bad-cop mom; when Sophina tells their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) that she can't have a fruit roll-up to take to day care, Grant slips her one when he drops her off.
A little later, Grant doesn't understand why he can't have his job back at the grocery when he asks for it, or why persistent tardiness is a reason for firing him. This angers him, yet he is wonderfully kind a moment later to a young white woman (Ahna O'Reilly) who is looking for the best kind of fish for a fish fry. He even calls his grandmother on his cell phone for her advice.
It's difficult to say how closely Coogler's screenplay reflects the events on Grant's last day. Among other things, Grant spends a fair amount of time alone. Did he really encounter a pit bull roaming the streets, or dump a bag of marijuana he intended to sell? It isn't unusual for movies about real people to invent or conflate events for dramatic purposes. What is important about Fruitvale Station is that it gives us a vivid portrait of a life that, though flawed, had value and purpose. We come to love Oscar Grant through Coogler's story and through the deeply moving performance of Michael B. Jordan, who is clearly an actor to watch. The knowledge that his time is running out adds exponentially to the film's urgency, so that when Wanda Johnson suggests to her son that he and Sophina take BART to see the New Year's fireworks in San Francisco, instead of dealing with parking downtown, our hearts break in that moment.
The audience members at the screening of Fruitvale Station that I attended were speechless at the end, as was I. Fruitvale Station has that kind of power. Up close and personal, it presents the vicious circle in which Oscar Grant and so many other young black men have been trapped, and are trapped still. Grant lived in a place where achievement and self-discipline are nebulous concepts; where aggression is necessary for survival; and where the sheer inertia of society, expressed by blind prejudice, was weighted heavily against him. I am a white man of late middle age, raised in the rural Midwest. If I encountered Oscar Grant alone in a dark street, how would I feel? Unfortunately, I already know the answer.
The transit cop who shot Grant testified that, in the confusion on the train platform, he mistook his gun for his Taser. The jury believed his story, and found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter; he served eleven months of a two-year sentence. If I had been on the jury, would I have accepted his version of events? I have no idea. All I know is that Wanda Johnson has no son, and Tatiana Grant has no father.
Forest Whitaker is one of the producers of Fruitvale Station. He also is the star of Lee Daniels' film, The Butler, which portrays race relations in America across most of the 20th Century. The didactic streak that runs lightly through Fruitvale Station is laid on with a trowel in The Butler. But though Fruitvale Station is the better film, The Butler has such an uplifting message, and such a high degree of professionalism throughout, that it also qualifies as a must-see.
Lee Daniels' The Butler is the film's official title; a legal dispute between The Weinstein Company, which released the film, and Warner Brothers forced the unwieldy addition of the director's name. (This is the only place in this review where you will be forced to suffer the official title.) Based on the memoirs of White House butler Gene Allen, Danny Strong's screenplay tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who rises from poverty on a 1920s Georgia cotton plantation to become a butler serving seven successive presidents, from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Cecil's story is a compendium of the horrors of American bigotry. As a child, he sees his mother raped and his father murdered by the psychopathic plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer). The plantation owner's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on young Cecil, placing him under her protection as a house servant. Leaving the plantation as a teenager, Cecil sees lynched men, hanging face-to-face as if embracing each other in the brotherhood of death. In an unnamed Southern town, he finds a mentor (Clarence Williams III) who finishes his training as a waiter-butler and recommends him for a job at a posh Washington hotel. It is at this hotel that a high-ranking official of the Eisenhower administration notices Cecil and invites him to join the White House staff.
Between its basic story and its star-studded cast, The Butler superficially resembles Backstairs at the White House, the 1979 miniseries starring Leslie Uggams as a White House seamstress whose tenure covered the years from Taft to Eisenhower. One could almost say The Butler picks up where Backstairs at the White House leaves off. However, The Butler is by far the more politically charged movie, with a far more panoramic view of history. The main portion of the movie covers the most significant period for civil rights this country has ever seen, from Brown vs. Board of Education to the election of Barack Obama. Daniels and Strong give that history a sense of immediacy, not only through events in the White House but also through the lives of Cecil, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).
The Butler is an instructive look at African-American life over the past six decades, if at times too obviously so. But the story is compelling, particularly with such a splendid cast breathing life into it. Whitaker is flat-out wonderful as Cecil, his elegant impassivity barely masking the raging emotions borne of being kicked around many times too often. Winfrey is his equal as a woman whose personal demons threaten to overwhelm her. Her performance reminds us what a superb actress we lost when she became the most famous woman in the world.
The cast of The Butler contains an honor roll of African-American and Anglo-African actors, including Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil's White House co-workers and Terrence Howard as a ladies' man with an eye for Gloria. Oyelowo is notable as Louis, who takes the radical political route to his father's dismay. Probably the best scene in the movie is the violent dinner-table argument that breaks out between Cecil and Louis over whether Sidney Poitier is a role model or an Uncle Tom. There is some stunt casting among the white actors (i.e. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), but generally the white performers hold up their end. I never thought John Cusack could be so Nixonian, or Alan Rickman so Reaganesque.
2013 has been a notable year for the honest portrayal of African-American history in the cinema. We had 42 earlier this year, followed by Fruitvale Station and The Butler, not to mention 12 Years a Slave (which opened too late for this review). At a time when voting rights and other basic liberties are under siege from Congress, state legislatures, and the courts, we cannot have too many such films. African-Americans will never forget the history that Fruitvale Station and The Butler portray. Middle-aged white men from the rural Midwest must never forget it.