A few times each year, certain films challenge me on a deeper, primal level. They rattle the critical cage, issuing a call that necessitates a response from more than the safe sanctity of the intellect. They demand a blood offering from the heart. I confronted the duality of walking into the movie theater as both critic and man, and wondered what was happening to me during that first unspooling of Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.
Years ago, long before my run as a film critic, I remember sitting uncomfortably in a screening of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, during that pivotal moment at the end as Malcolm (Denzel Washington) makes his way to what will be his appointed time. We have seen so much of his life — his wild early days, his conversion to the Nation of Islam, his trip to Mecca and his questioning of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad — and we know what comes next. Lee employs his moving sidewalk effect that allows a stationary figure to “advance” forward, that signature visual device of his, which had bothered me so often in past instances. Yet, here, it perfectly captured the notion of fate propelling Malcolm to this moment against his will. There was even a comparative reference to Jesus, alone, praying to God, asking for this cup, this moment to pass him by, but in the end, relenting, conceding that it should be God’s will and not his (human) desire that should dictate what is to come. And so, we watch and wait for the inevitable.
That degree of anticipation, that foreboding sense of dread overcame me as I watched Coogler’s account of Oscar Grant (Michael B.
Jordan) making his way through what would be his last day. We see, at the start, some of the cell phone footage documenting the escalation of the confrontation between Grant and the police. It is a reminder of the inescapable truth, but then Coogler ushers us into the early hours of the morning before with the hushed voices of Grant and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) considering resolutions, dreaming about the upcoming year. But they can’t stride forward quite so easily. Sophina reminds Grant that he has wronged her, having been caught sleeping with another woman. Can she trust him? They have a child together, but are not married. Can she be sure he is committed to her?
He pleads his case and in what will become a recurring mantra, professes his love. The audience witnesses these professions of love throughout the day, his last day. And each and every time, I was moved. What does that say about my objectivity as a critic? Can I not see that Coogler is manipulating me, not so much tugging on my heartstrings, but plucking the bass string for that deep rich undertone?
Is this what it is like for white critics, sitting in the comforting embrace of the darkness before life’s rich pageant, that parade of human portraits that speak to their experiences? For instance, watching Lincoln, as seen in Steven Spielberg’s recent celebrated biopic, sagely discussing the necessity of the battle for the state of our unstable union with two pairs of soldiers, one white, another black, with one of the black soldiers playing back his own historic words. Does that wring forth a tear or swell their chests with identification and pride?
What about when they are confronted by Jesus (Willem Dafoe) from Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, on the cross having seen the vision of his life, if he had been coaxed to climb down, but realizing the deception of that dream? Is it heartening to see his resolve in remaining to cap off his ultimate sacrifice? Does that moment reach down into their chests, yanking their hearts up to their throats?
And what about these two examples I’ve chosen — Lincoln and Jesus — two ideal pillars that stand separate in our imaginations from the rest of humanity; both human, yet we are rarely treated to any significant baser human urges in either of them. But in Fruitvale Station, Coogler dares to show Grant as a flawed young man — the hotheaded, flirtatious street hustler with all that love in his heart Is it blasphemous to say, and more importantly believe, as Meshell Ndegeocello sang (on “GOD.FEAR.MONEY” from Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape), “If Jesus were alive today, he’d be incarcerated with the rest of the brothas,” brothas like Grant?
That is the challenge, the critical difference between universal truth and human drama that we all wrestle with, every time we walk into the dark, whether we recognize it or not.
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