Thoughts on Fruitvale Station

After a month delay and several months of being intrigued by the premise of the film, I finally saw “Fruitvale Station” last week. It left me feeling a number of emotions upon exiting the theater.

“Fruitvale Station” is the story of Oscar Grant and the 24 hours leading up to his death at the Fruitvale subway stop in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day 2009. But it’s really so much more than that. It’s a story that truly does explore the human condition through Oscar’s eyes and makes the viewer see a troubled man who was trying to turn his life around.

What makes “Fruitvale Station” different than most movies is that you have some idea going in how the story will end. Anyone who has heard about the film or done any research on the case, knows ultimately that Oscar Grant will be killed. Similar much in the same way as a movie like “Titanic,” where (spoiler alert) the ship sinks, with a film like “Fruitvale Station” character development becomes all the more crucial when the audience knows the final result.

Michael B. Jordan gives an excellent performance as Oscar Grant. Through him, we see more of a 360 degree portrayal of Grant. By that I mean director Ryan Coogler is careful not to paint Grant as some figure headed for sainthood before death. Too often in dramas about people’s lives, we see heavy handed attempts to portray the protagonist in the most positive light possible with little to no faults. In essence the main character becomes reduced to little more than a cardboard cutout of virtue, instead of a fleshed out human being with emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual obstacles to conquer. This is exactly the criticism I leveled at the film “42”; I was glad to see “Fruitvale Station” didn’t follow that same script.

Over the course of the film we see Oscar not take his prospects of getting a job seriously. We see a man at times quick to anger, but even quicker to flash his smile at someone. We see a person learning to accept the responsibility of fatherhood while trying to become a more supportive partner to his girlfriend. We also witness the interactions he has with his mother (great job by Octavia Spencer) and the initial guilt she feels immediately after his death.

“Fruitvale Station” on its surface is a movie about a shooting, but really it’s a movie about the relationships between Oscar Grant and those around him. Through his friends and family we see him as a person bending in the direction of slowly, but steadily, improving his life. I would strongly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, to make an effort to watch it while it’s still in theaters. It may leave you teary eyed at points, but chances are, you’ll be better for the experience.

Is an Oscar Win the Kiss of Death for Black Actors?

I rooted for both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis during last Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m not one who usually cares for award shows, but this year’s Oscars had the weight of history on its broad shoulders.

See, not only were two black women nominated for Oscars, they were favored to win. Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis had received critical acclaim for their portrayals as Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark in Dreamworks’ “The Help.” The idea of black women playing maids and being awarded for it, is in itself nothing new. You can go as far back as 1940 with the case of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal as (you guessed it) a maid. 72 years later, it seems Hollywood has not come as far as one would expect in acknowledging black women (or women of color for that matter) for roles beyond that of domestics.

An even more troubling development is that an Oscar win hasn’t exactly been a golden ticket to unlocking better roles or more consistent work within Hollywood. This has especially been true for black actors and actresses. Octavia Spencer is just the latest actress of color whom people are wondering what her next step will be. If the past is any precedent, Spencer’s future might be murky at best.

Since winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for her role in “Precious,” Monique has had a canceled late night TV show on BET and nary a film role to speak of. Halle Berry, who won the Best Actress Award for her role in “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, hasn’t sniffed another Oscar since. Her most memorable film since “Monster’s Ball” might be her work as Storm in the X-Men series. The lack of consistent work isn’t just limited to the ladies however. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career basically fell off the edge of the earth after winning for Best Supporting Actor in “Jerry McGuire.” He too has not come close to winning another Oscar.

It hasn’t all been negative though. Since winning an Oscar for Best Actor in 2002 for “Training Day,” Denzel Washington has only garnered more acclaim and recognition for his work. Finding work has not been trouble for Mr. Washington. The problem is Denzel is the exception and not the rule when it comes to black actors in Hollywood. Maybe things will be different this time for Octavia Spencer. Or maybe, after 72 years, we still have to wait yet a little bit longer to the day when an Oscar win by a person of color is no longer a noteworthy thing.