By Armond White
And it was hell tryin’ to bail to the ovaries
With nothin’ but the Lord lookin’ over me
I was white with a tail
But when I reached the Finish Line—
YOUNG BLACK MALE!
–Ice Cube’s “The Product”
Young Black males rarely get such a smoothly beautiful portrait as in Fruitvale Station. It recalls how Ice Cube in 1994 brilliantly rapped about being a product of his environment in a cultural, biological, existential tour de force. But Oscar Grant, the real-life subject of Fruitvale Station, is merely a product of Sundance artifice. There’s no preparation for Oscar’s typical, mysterious, scary Black man flash of anger that occurs in Fruitvale Station–or his unfair destruction.
This prototype role recalls how Tennessee Williams once described Johnny Mathis: “He is a natural and fitted athlete–of body, of voice, of spirit…I tried to write a character based on him once, but I kept getting lost in the prototype.” Fruitvale Station’s writer-director Ryan Coogler seems similarly lost in prototype yet he was fortunate that Oscar’s imperfect personality–a sentimentally viewed sociological victim–fell to Michael B. Jordan (who played the Obama-like Student Council President in last year’s Chronicle). Jordan, a brilliant young actor, heir to Ice Cube’s hiphop perspective, gives this year’s most powerfully affecting performance. From making love to his girl Sophina (Melonie Diaz), beaming at his toddler daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to respectfully addressing his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), Oscar is first seen as tender and naturally charismatic, an irresistible character study–and a star turn–until he gets “normalized” into a mysterious, unknowable memorial to real-life tragedy.
The little goatee growing on Jordan’s baby-fat chin marks him at an indeterminate stage of manhood when responsibility and social pressure descend upon him. At 22-years-old, Oscar is an awkward age for social-protest cinema that customarily prefers statistical victim protagonists (as in the adolescent dramas Boyz N the Hood, Fresh, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Precious, Menace II Society, et al). Oscar already has a jail record but suppresses his worldliness and is ready to give up selling pot; yet he displays a temperamental reflex to deal with harsh experience. Jordan shows complex feelings in Oscar’s eyes and voice: his feral and jovial moods, his hair-trigger anger and ardent affection.
At this level, Fruitvale Station represents the triumph of a young actor’s handsome vibrancy representing those young men who remain enigmas on 24-hour-news-networks. But you cannot write a character like this–as director-writer Ryan Coogler’s superficial screenplay (and Tennessee Williams’ confession) demonstrates. Coogler was fortunate to find Jordan who makes better sense of Oscar’s imperfect character than doesthe sociological sentimentality of this victim story.
Fruitvale Station is named for the subway stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit where Oscar Grant was killed during a stop-and-frisk police procedure in 2008. Set in Oakland, Calif. (memorably the setting of Mario and Melvin Van Peebles’ extraordinary Panther, a dramatic history of the Black Panthers), it doesn’t recreate the tragedy with political consciousness like the Van Peebles; rather, Coogler’s softer approach settles on sorrow. This film aims to be a folk legend.
Coogler makes Oscar an existential casualty (as suggested in the overly symbolic scene where he helps a stray dog after a hit-and-run accident) which might be even worse than analyzing another infuriating police accident. Jordan’s marvelous characterization is betrayed by this concept. In the end, Oscar’s recognizable urban personality and frustrated ambitions are all angled to fit a sociological profile. The subway sequence where Oscar and Sophina celebrate with New Year’s Eve passengers indicate specifically West Coast Liberal geniality. But this surprising bonhomie is conveyed with a suspicious fake-documentary distance. At times Coogler steps back from his tale as if creating Bressonian distance through mismatched cuts, empty station shots and rough cell-phone imagery. These dubious esthetics smack of Sundance patronization (where Fruitvale Station took the Grand Prize).
It misses the spiritual beauty of Steve McQueen’s damaged American male in Robert Mulligan’s masterpiece Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1964) as well as the tough realism of Black urban consciousness–such as “The Black Book of Survival” that community activists used to hand out around Brooklyn’s Borough Hall warning young Black men: “When the police approach you CALM DOWN. They want to kill you.”
Coogler’s condescending to young men like Oscar may let Sundance swag-baggers feel better about themselves but reducing Oscar to a social statistic ruins the crucial moments when his behavior and fate need to be seen as clearly, unhurriedly and precisely as possible. It ignores the life force that Ice Cube made clear and that Jordan makes so appealing.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair