With Ryan Coogler’s Creed the unexpected critical/audience sensation of the pre-Star Wars season, people want to know more about Fruitvale Station, the only other feature film directed by Coogler. As it happens, since the day Fruitvale Station debuted, I’ve been screening it for my students in multiple college classes; this semester, Fall 2015, I screened it for four different classes. I’ve received dozens of papers, scores of required blog posts on the film. Whatever you want to know, we should have it here. We can even draw some connections between Fruitvale Station and the knockout punch that is Creed.
Fruitvale Station is a “based on true events” film about the last day in young Oscar Grant’s life, December 31, 2008. The film begins, like many films, by flashing forward to the end of Act 2, if you will – showing us about a minute of the film’s lowest point, and then cutting to earlier that day. In this case, Coogler used actual footage that bystanders captured with their cell phones at the BART station in the wee hours of January 1, 2009…and some criticized Coogler for this, partly because it comes close to Faces of Death-style graphic violence in the first minute (though Coogler goes to blackout as the shot rings out), and partly because now that we know what’s going to happen, what’s the point of waiting?
In a word, to focus on Grant’s character. My students decided that the “tension” is less about Grant’s survival and more about whether or not he can be a good man, worthy of his girlfriend and daughter. If death hangs over that and makes us question why Grant should even bother to change, well, a similar threat of death hangs over way too many young black men in Grant’s circumstances. Should the film have “invented” moments, like the dying dog or Oscar’s mother’s birthday (which isn’t on December 31)? My students didn’t mind these occasional departures from realism, because, almost paradoxically, they helped the film feel like “a day in the life” and all that phrase implies – a proud yet unglamorous existence, a regular routine disrupted.
Does the film lionize Oscar Grant? This is a subject that divided my students. Grant deals drugs, he threatens his former boss if the man doesn’t hire him back – “You want me waiting in the parking lot for you bra?” On the other hand, the film’s only conspicuous use of slow motion is when Oscar playfully runs down a driveway with his daughter – perhaps beatifying him, perhaps simply indicating what a precious, gossamer-thin moment that is. My students’ consensus was that it’s a warts-and-all portrayal. Oscar was a flawed person, but still trying to become a better man – when all was lost. Did the film owe us more about the police officer who shot Grant? Perhaps a scene where he was eating a cheeseburger, goofing off with his friends? My students felt no, because there have been enough films about cops.
Since the 1990s, there really haven’t been too many films that feature a young black working-class man who doesn’t go from rags to riches. Coogler is taking us somewhere we haven’t been for a while, but the trick is to make it look as familiar as catfish. Coogler grew up in Oakland, attended Sacramento State and University of Southern California (disclaimer: these are all places with which I have deep connections), and he imbues Grant’s journeys around the East Bay with a street verisimilitude that is absolutely antithetical to the over-polished Best Man franchise or most Tyler Perry films. There’s no reason to “ghettoize” Coogler with other black filmmakers except to point out how difficult it must have been to get Fruitvale Station produced and distributed – it won the Audience Award at Sundance, and thus it’s an indie, but it doesn’t serve the pre-exisiting indie audience (read: white), and surely that’s one reason that despite its Sundance pedigree, it didn’t make a lot of money at the box office.
When Fruitvale Station debuted at Sundance in January 2013, #blacklivesmatter didn’t even exist, as a hashtag or otherwise. Now that Fruitvale Station is “out there,” as a feature film that anyone can rent, the film suggests one possible way of humanizing African-American victims of police brutality/over-reaction. Viral videos, protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, and #blacklivesmatter have helped to make the issue real for millions of Americans who were ignoring the issue when Coogler put together his film. Nonetheless, some hear names like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Samuel Dubose, Laquan McDonald, and Sandra Bland, and perhaps they see a video, but they find they can forget it. (Let’s say, without naming names, that many media sources can watch ten Republican candidates for President ignore #blacklivesmatter in four debates and not register any concern over that omission.) Coogler’s film, in its very structure, suggests what happens when you go behind a viral video, when you take time to see nuance and context. If you put Fruitvale Station alongside Creed, Coogler becomes someone we haven’t seen since the heyday of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers (that’s the early 1990s, kids): an under-30 African-American director of successful films that refuse to ignore race. We need that now even more than we did then.
Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan, in an extraordinary performance, as Oscar Grant; add in his performance in Creed, and Coogler and Jordan threaten to hit this decade like Scorsese and DeNiro hit the 70s. There’s also a trans-textual thing that happens with actors, as Jordan mentions, wanting to be someone his Mom can watch: “a mom can’t be seeing her son die over and over and over again, in dramatic ways…And I want people to see me live, to evolve into a leading man that survives some accident. That’s very important. Audiences get the chance to see this character live and try and be victorious and have some type of closure without ending his life.” One possible hidden message here is that everyone who wants to see Jordan play Tupac Shakur may have to wait a while. Another possible hidden message is that for those of us who have seen it all, and become weary of losing so many of our brothers and sisters to police brutality, Creed offers a sort of multi-textual, transference-based chance to watch Oscar Grant return to life, get none other than Rocky Balboa in his corner, and make a successful life.
The moment in Creed that parallels Rocky’s infamous ascension of those stairs is the moment where Creed/Jordan, in his best hoodie, somehow outruns a few friendly motorbikes through the dilapidated streets of Philadelphia. He’s both of the streets, and transcending them, with a chance that Oscar never got to chance to take. It’s a wonderful street fantasy, hard-won not just because of Creed’s and Balboa’s struggles, not just because of Jordan’s terrific acting and Coogler’s outstanding writing and directing, but also because of our knowledge of another street that young black men go down way too often, represented by Fruitvale Station. In a world where we still lose way too many Oscar Grants, in a world where we still need more black cinematic heroes (particularly in some stale franchises), we need both Fruitvale Station and Creed. It’s just lucky we’ve got Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and their superb teams to bring us both.
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey