I finally got a chance to see Fruitvale Station on a flight last week. In short, it’s a movie that definitely deserves upping my Top Nine Movies of 2013 to a list of the Top Ten Movies of 2013 (though which spot it deserves I can’t decide). The initial expectation for why it’s a great movie is obvious: it’s topical! A movie dealing with race and prejudice in the contemporary USA? If you’ll like this you’ll seem cultured, yes!
But to describe it as such not only does it a great injustice but also hardly describes the movie in full. Fruitvale Station is not a tract. Rather, it presents a sequence of events without actively telling the audience whether what’s happening is right or wrong. Rather the film presents the events leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant as scenes in everyday life.
Here’s where Fruitvale sets itself apart from similar movies like They Help or 12 Years a Slave. There’s no heroizing of Oscar. He’s presented as, well, as a person.In the film Oscar is, unflinchingly, neither clearly morally good or bad; instead he, like people in general, fluctuates between the two. Sure, he helps a stranger at a grocery store, going so far as to call his grandmother for help, but he also lies to his mother and girlfriend about being unemployed. Shortly after we first see Oscar we see him stashing a big bag of weed in his closet, yet he’s also someone who’s willing to spend what little cash he has on his mother for her birthday. Oscar’s complex, a man of dualities.
It’s rare that we see a character this morally gray. Malcolm Reynolds, of Firefly, almost reaches the same heights of Oscar. Mal too is a man comprised of a duality: he’s rude and borderline mean to Book and Inara, yet he’s quick to defend them should anyone else threaten them. He’s someone who will return stolen goods to a sickly town but soon after unhesitatingly kick an unarmed man into an engine intake. He’s hardly someone who follows the straight and narrow.
Malcolm Reynolds, however, remains fundamentally heroic. He may not be the goodest of the good, but he’s still someone who not only tends to do the right thing but also usually comes out on the heroic side. He robs an Alliance hospital to help two members of his crew and only because the hospital will be restocked in no time. Mal, unlike Oscar, has a moral code. It may not be the most righteous one, but it’s there all the same. Oscar, like ‘normal’ people, has no such clear moral compass. Instead he’s just a guy.
If anything, Oscar is a man with the potential to be good. Yes, he’s an ex-con, but he’s trying to turn his life around. Rather than having the audience invest in Oscar because he’s the ‘good guy,’ like 12 Years a Slave did with Solomon Northup, we invest in him because we see ourselves reflected in him. Oscar’s a guy trying to make his way in the world, trying to do right by the people he loves.
Along with that, Fruitvale Station asks us to empathize with people we may not like in real life. When Oscar drives he blares rap music, like those degenerates who woke you up when they drove through your neighborhood last night. The film has us look beyond first impressions and see the people underneath. Furthermore, Fruitvale Station never tries to tell us to like Oscar, rather it shows us who they are and thereby get to know them.
Which is what makes the shooting all the more tragic. It’s not presented as a case of “look how awful racial prejudice is,” instead the tragedy stems from seeing the life of a young man trying to better himself and beloved by his family cut short. Oscar’s death is the loss of a person full of hopes and flaws. That it comes as a result of prejudice only serves to deepen the tragedy and illuminate problems of the system.
So yes, Fruitvale Station is topical, far more so than film like 12 Years a Slave. This relevance, however, never gets in the way of the characters and plot. It’s a slice of the life of a twenty-two year old man, albeit one which ends in his murder.