*** Spoilers for Both FRUITVALE STATION & DO THE RIGHT THING to Follow ***
The pit bull was just wandering past the gas station where Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was filling his tank. Oscar called it over, pet its face, felt the saliva of its tongue as the animal reciprocated the affection, and then went back to fueling his vehicle. Moments later, screeching tires would fill the scene, followed by a thump and a squeal. Oscar would attempt to chase the vehicle down, screaming at its driver to stop, but to no avail. The driver didn’t have time to even mourn the animal it just murdered, leaving Oscar to scoop the beast off of the hot Oakland pavement and call for help that would never arrive as the helpless dog died in his arms.
I never knew who Oscar Grant was before FRUITVALE STATION won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. I know that this fact will probably cause some to raise eyebrows and feign indignation (hipster advocacy is so wonderful), but it’s true. Like many other young black men shot and killed every day, he was a statistic, not a name. And unfortunately for the fallen, George Zimmerman can’t kill them all, raising a media spotlight on their ill-fated plight and reminding us that these types of tragedies occur more often than we as a society would like to admit.
But the wonderful thing about Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is the fact that, while inherently a piteous tale, FRUITVALE STATION isn’t all sadness and political posturing (politics which, much like with Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, those who seem to be afraid of the film’s racial examinations are quickly attempting to discredit). In fact, I’d argue that even though the film ends on a dire note, it is more about the life that went unlived than it is martyr canonization. At its core, FRUITVALE STATION is about highlighting the strangers that we pass on the street, asking the audience to do a double-take and pose the question: “hey, I wonder what that person struggles with every day of their life?”
In his essay for DO THE RIGHT THING’s Criterion DVD release, the late great Roger Ebert reflected on the film’s premiere at Cannes in 1989, refuting a fellow critic’s claim that the film was a call for “racial violence”, instead labeling Spike Lee’s masterpiece “a call to empathy”, saying:
Perhaps I was too idealistic, but it seemed to me that any open-minded member of the audience would walk out of the movie able to understand the motivations of every character in the film—not forgive them, perhaps, but understand them. A black viewer would be able to understand the feelings of Sal, the Italian-American whose pizzeria is burned by a mob, and a white viewer would be able to understand why a black man—who Sal considered his friend—would perform the action that triggers the mob.
Many of FRUITVALE STATION’s critics have used the word “manipulative” in an attempt to tear the movie down, and the truth is, yes the film is certainly calculating. But it is acting in the service of lionizing those who are usually neglected by their fellow man. In his Time Out Review, Sam Adams asks:
Does it matter that Oscar Grant was kind to animals, loved his daughter, helped strangers?
But I feel like this is the wrong question to be asking*. Of course it doesn’t matter that Oscar Grant was kind, gentle and a loving father any more than it matters that he was a drug dealer and did time in San Quentin for a gun charge. What Coogler is asking you to do is simply look at the stranger sitting next to you in the theater and just imagine what it must be like to walk a mile in their shoes and then get killed at the end of the day for no apparent reason. That’s what the “cinema of empathy” is all about — understanding over all.
Think about the characters in DO THE RIGHT THING’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Does it matter that we know Mother Sister’s feelings toward The Mayor? Does it matter that we know the Mayor’s shame about leaving his family for the cold daily refreshment of the “High Life”? Does it matter that we get to know racist Pino’s feelings on Sal’s Famous, the work his father has put in over the years, or the color of their patrons’ skin? Does it matter that we see how Sal looks with affection upon Mookie’s sister, Jade? Does it matter that Mookie is hustling, day in and out, just “trying to get paid” while he neglects his infant son? Does it matter that we hear Radio Raheem’s take on the battle between “Love” and “Hate”?
And in the end, do any of these moments truly matter when viewed in the aftermath of Radio Raheem’s brutal death at the hands of the police and the subsequent burning of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria?
The answer to both Sam’s and the questions I just posed is obviously “no”. In respect to the tragedies that end both fictional films**, none of these details are of truly great importance. All that really remains is the fact that two young black men were killed in cold blood, and a business burned down in retaliation for one of the murders.
There’s a moment toward the end of FRUITVALE STATION where Oscar meets a young, white entrepreneur and his pregnant wife on the street. The man’s wife desperately needs to find a bathroom, and Oscar helps her gain access to a toilet whose owner had already closed it to the public. While they wait, Oscar and the man chat, and the man reveals that he was once a criminal, stealing the engagement ring he gave his wife eight years prior because they were flat broke. In this moment, the two men find equal footing as Oscar, no stranger to trouble with the law, sees this seemingly affluent white man admit to once struggling with the same problems he does on a daily basis. And the man no longer sees Oscar as some kind of black sweat-shirted thug, but a young man contemplating marriage in the face of financial struggles he faced at the same age. This is what empathy is all about.
Think back to that poor, seemingly aimless pit bull for a second. Before Oscar stopped to show that meandering beast even the smallest bit of kindness, I wonder if anyone else took the time to wonder just how tough that animal’s life was before it got run over in the middle of the road. I wonder if they ever thought about how it had to struggle to find food and water, being turned away by probably everyone who laid eyes on it because, deep down, they see pit bulls as “deadly animals”. No one cared that the animal was just trying to stay alive, and that if you stopped and gave it the time of day, it wasn’t going to bite you. Instead, it was simply going to lick your face and hands; the animal’s means of showing gratitude for simple concern.
Metaphorically, Grant and Radio Raheem are both the pit bull, dying in the arms of a bystander who can’t believe the callousness he just witnessed (and, in the case of Officer Caruso, participated in). In the end, it doesn’t matter that Oscar Grant was a good father or kind to strangers any more than the volume of Radio Raheem’s music did. But neither Ryan Coogler nor Spike Lee are creating symbols to incite action, but rather asking you to think about how these poor dogs lived their lives before they were run over in the middle of life’s road, their promise to be forgotten by the rest of us as we move on with our day-to-day.
*To be fair, so does Sam. But I also disagree fundamentally with his assertion that FRUITVALE STATION is essentially the inversion of the racist “Trayvon was a hoodied thug” argument leveled by Zimmerman supporters. In fact, I don’t think FRUITVALE is an argument for anything beyond simple empathy
**Those whining “yeah, but Grant was real” would do well to remember that A) Coogler’s film is indeed a fictional account of his final day, and B) Radio Raheem was modeled after real life African American victims of police victimization Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart, whose families DO THE RIGHT THING is dedicated to