Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Fruitvale Station," Trayvon Martin and the Year of the Black Martyr

You never know where the years, or the day, will take you -- or where it'll send someone else. That's the beauty and the tragedy of life. It applies to both Michael B. Jordan and to Oscar Grant III, the character he played in the mid-2013 release Fruitvale Station, for whom December 31, 2008 began pretty much like any other day.

Years ago, while visiting my friend Rebecca Budig on the set of All My Children, the daytime soap on which she was still playing Greenlee at the time, she introduced me to two of her teen costars, Leven Rambin and Jordan, both of whom played her adoptive younger siblings on the show.

The two young actors were sweet and exceptionally talented, and I was sure they both would enjoy successful careers as adults. But it was Rambin for whom I predicted super-size things. She was blonde and beautiful, and she had It, that indescribable X factor. I expected her to be the next Jennifer Lawrence years before Jennifer Lawrence.

But what did I know? Although Rambin, now 23, has done well (she even appeared with Lawrence in 2012's Hunger Games), Jordan, now 26, is the one who, following several powerful prime-time TV turns (I was especially moved by his performance as a blind patient in a 2012 episode of House), is enjoying Oscar buzz for his role in the Sundance and Cannes Film Festival hit Fruitvale Station. The film, based on actual events, details the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant before he was shot by a trigger-happy cop who supposedly mistook his gun for his taser at the Fruitvale Station on Oakland's BART line.

In a year with fewer potential Best Actor nominees, I'd call Jordan a shoo-in. My how he's grown since his years on AMC, when he was playing street kid with a heart of gold Reggie Montgomery. It was a fairly stock role, a Blackie Parrish-style archetype (a reference to the General Hospital role that made John Stamos a star in the '80s), and had he just played the Fruitvale script, Oscar might have been a variation on that theme. But Jordan went above and beyond plot and dialogue, telling so much of Oscar's story through facial expressions and body language.

His Oscar was as tough and angry as he was kind and generous. You could see him trying to keep his fury in check, as if he was pushed up against a door that the howling wind was threatening to blow open. When he did give in to his rage, as in the scene where his mother (Octavia Spencer) visited him in prison, he quickly and unexpectedly shifted to vulnerable, helping viewers to sympathize with the complicated youth, even while shaking their heads at his bad choices.

Jordan infused Oscar with just enough potential menace to override the script's attempts to sanitize him, to turn him into The Black Martyr, a la Trayvon Martin. I sat through the 85-minute film expecting him to blow up at every turn, waiting for it, but he rarely did. Too many violent outbursts would have undermined the goal of the movie, which clearly wanted us to love Oscar so that we would be all the more enraged by what happened to him. Jordan, though, didn't let Oscar off as easily as the movie did.

The script gave Oscar something of a split personality: For every violent outburst (the altercation with the fellow inmate when his mother visited him in prison, an argument with his former boss during which Oscar issued an idle threat), there was a random act of kindness/conscientiousness or two (calling his grandmother on the phone to explain fish fry to a pretty girl in the supermarket, giving away his marijuana for free rather than selling it, asking a shopkeeper to to open his closed doors to allow a pregnant woman to use the bathroom, the dog scene), seemingly thrown in to offset any negative impressions that his hot temper might have given us.

Those random acts of kindness/conscientiousness felt too manufactured and manipulative to me -- much more so than his mother's game-changing request that he and his friends take the BART instead of driving when they went partying on New Year's Eve, which is exactly what my mom would have done -- and the film didn't need them to convince me that Oscar didn't deserve what he got. I didn't need to see him tending to a cute dog that had been run down by a driver who didn't bother to stop to get his capacity for caring.

His paternal instincts were obvious in every touching scene with his young daughter, Tatiana. The quiet family moments were the ones in which the film really did Oscar justice. He was a doting father and son, and he loved his girlfriend Sophina, the mother of his daughter, despite his roving eyes and hands. Interestingly, the film opened with a very realistic scene of him and Sophina arguing over his recent infidelity (following a prologue that showed the final police altercation as captured on video). The scene was quietly understated, free of the sort of histrionics one might expect from a cheated-on girlfriend scolding her husband (kudos to Melonie Diaz, who handled all of her scenes with a similarly subtle touch, never lapsing into melodrama), giving the relationship context and subtext.

The quiet family moments and the tense ones were what I remembered while I was watching that police beatdown, dreading what was coming next, knowing what was coming next. I didn't need to see Oscar helping stray girls in grocery stores or stray dogs on the side of the road, to know that he was a flawed yet decent guy who had made mistakes but loved his family. He didn't deserve what was coming to him.

When the movie won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January, I didn't realize that it was based on a real-life incident that occurred on New Year's Day 2009. At the time, almost exactly five years ago, I was living in Buenos Aires, so perhaps the news just didn't travel that far south. If it did, I don't recall ever hearing or reading anything about Oscar vs. the Oakland police, a precursor to the eerily similar Trayvon Martin case, which dominated media coverage this past summer, following the announcement of the verdict on July 13, the day after Fruitvale Station opened in the U.S. (Incidentally, Jordan's episode of House debuted in Canada on February 27, 2012, the day after Martin was killed.)

From Melbourne to Buenos Aires to Bangkok to Berlin, it was hard to miss the coverage of Trayvon Martin's murder in 2012 and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot him. I'm not sure why it was Trayvon and not Oscar who became an international symbol for Black Martyrdom. Trayvon was its poster child, literally, even before Zimmerman's acquittal, despite a lack of eyewitnesses (as detailed in the movie, shocked bystanders -- and Oscar himself -- used their cell phones to film the police's assault on Oscar and his friends) and despite evidence that up to the point of gunfire, Trayvon may have given as good as he got, possibly more.

Oscar doesn't get so much as his own Wikipedia page, even after the independent film's modest success ($16.2 million at the box office). I wonder if the movie didn't do better business because people felt they were already watching it on the news, and Trayvon Martin was a much bigger star than Oscar Grant or any of the performers in Fruitvale Station.

Perhaps it was Trayvon's age: 17. Oscar was only 22, but there's something that seems to be more inherently tragic about a teenager being gunned down by the police (or in Trayvon's case, a security guard), well before the prime of his life. Maybe it was Trayvon's baby face. He was such a cute kid, and his image was perfect for pins and posters and sweat shirts and other forms of sloganeering. Or it simply could have been timing: Were people too busy recovering from the holidays and trying to keep their New Year's resolutions to get too up in arms over a black kid in Oakland who had been killed after a night of partying?

When The Trayvon Martin Story inevitably makes it to theaters, I hope it doesn't try as hard to make us love him as his family and the press did during the trial and throughout its aftermath. I also hope he's played by an actor as skilled as Jordan, one who will do justice not to the legend, not to the black martyr, but to a boy who shouldn't have died so brutally and so young, whether he was a great kid or not.
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