On the way into the Ambler Theater, I spotted a couple relentlessly quizzing the ticket seller about which movie they should see. When the ticket seller described Fruitvale Station as "A movie about the killing of a young black man," the couple simultaneously shook their heads.
"It doesn't sound like something you'd like," the woman told the man.
Here's the thing about Fruitvale Station: It isn't a topic that you're meant to like. It's a sad, tragic, beautifully depicted film about the senseless death of Oscar Grant, a struggling ex-con who is trying hard to raise his daughter, be a decent partner to his girlfriend and stay away from drug dealing.
Oscar has a short temper, has cheated on his girlfriend in the past, and comes this close to resuming his drug dealing business on the day when he is unjustly shot to death by a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman after a scuffle on the train returning from San Francisco on New Year's Day.
The story is based on a true event. The film's opening sequence shows the actual cell phone video shot by onlookers of Oscar's shooting. Fruitvale Station is totally worthwhile and beautifully acted. Its writer and director, Ryan Coogler, has a brilliant future.
But cinematic quality aside, Fruitvale Station begs a larger question: Why, in 2013, does such a film still have to be made? Why must we— as an audience, and maybe a country— be shown that Oscar "“ black, poor and unskilled"“ is a worthy human being whose death deserves to be depicted as a tragedy?
Anyone who watched even three minutes of the recent Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial understands that, by trying to slur Trayvon's reputation (how strong he was, whether he had drugs in his system), the defense worked hard to make jurors (and the rest of us) think that somehow the 17-year-old boy "deserved" to be shot— that he wasn't simply killed for walking while black.
Yet the flip side presented in Fruitvale Station— where the filmmaker is hell-bent on presenting Oscar as a good person— also grates. Coogler feels obligated to expose us to adorable scenes with Oscar's terrifically cute daughter, tender scenes with his larger family, personable scenes with a white stranger as Oscar cares for his pregnant girlfriend.
We see Oscar's flashes of temper, to be sure, but overall this is a message picture designed to convince us that a BART policeman unjustly killed someone worth mourning. Why wouldn't movie audiences reach that conclusion on our own, without Coogler's heavy-handed prompting?
Of course, Coogler may know his audience only too well: Too many of us need to be convinced of the worth of a 22-year-old man.
I wish Coogler had made the message a bit more challenging for his audience. Suppose he'd given us a more ambiguous Oscar, someone a little less likeable— a version of the affable monster Tony Soprano, perhaps— and then left it up to us to decide if we want to go along for his ride.
Perhaps Coogler felt constrained to stick to the facts of Oscar's life. I just wish I'd felt more uncomfortable as I walked out of the theater— less coddled and manipulated by Hollywood's conventional shorthand notions of attractiveness and virtue, and more addled by the universal injustice of a an ordinary flawed man victimized by a cop gone rogue.