Movies That Matter: Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the idea of Post Racial Movies

If I was to scratch out a top 10 movies I have watched in the last year list, it is quite possible that both Fruitvale Station and Creed would make the list. These two movies, which are both directed by Ryan Coogler and both star Michael B. Jordan, have a few parallel elements, but on the whole are wildly different films. Both have been extensively reviewed, so rather than just tell you how great they were, and they were both great, I wanted to highlight a subtle writing style that was present in both films, something I am calling here ‘post racial story telling’.

Fruitvale was the lesser seen of these two movies.  Coogler puts to film the story of the last day of life for Oscar Grant, a 22-year old kid who was killed in an Oakland BART station by the police. This story, and the demonstrations and controversy that followed, are undeniably racially charged and have had a lasting effect on our American culture. The way Coogler tells the story however elevates the movie from a simple hard-driving message about racial profiling to a deeper look at how people interact with each other in moments of privacy and calm, and then uses that juxtaposition to really punch the viewer in the gut at the final scene.  The bias of the audience is never assumed or taken for granted.  It takes clever writing and directorial deft to write a movie that has a known ending and still have the conclusion be dramatic, shocking, and even a little surprising.

Here are the two sides that are lined up to make this work. There are several scenes in prison where overt white vs. black racism is on full display. Copious insults and profanity are spread about along with lots of physical violence, and it is all racially motivated. This is pure evil racism at its most visceral, albeit a little clichéd. Outside of that setting however, we watch Oscar move through his last day largely alone. He is making plans for him Mom’s birthday dinner, he fights with his girlfriend, and he helps a girl select the right kind of fish at the super market counter. We see him make a series of moral choices, but then have the world around him push back with a steady drum beat of ‘this is your life and you can’t escape it’.

All through these experiences, Oscar interacts with whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.  There are clumsy conversation stumbles, clearly different cultural contexts for the various parties, but what really jumps out to me is that the point Coogler seems to be making is how most people, when it’s just people interacting day-to-day, are not overtly racist or consumed with racial conflict. Now I may be naive to read the film this way, as I certainly have not been a victim of racism directly, and only other forms of discrimination tangentially, but it is in this reading of this movie that I see Fruitvale Station as an even deeper tragedy, because (at least in the movie telling) the cops killed more than a man on that platform, they killed hope. They murdered all the good will that was built through the movie, good will and understanding between the white girl who needed the fish suggestion (she surfaces again at the end to witness the murder), they murdered the simpatico between the two men (Oscar and a white dude) who stood out side a closed store while their respective girls used the restroom, and they slayed the flawed yet some how very real and important relationship between Oscar and his girl.

I can’t be anymore clear when I say that the main story is a real life tragedy, so I don’t mean to undermine that by highlighting different characteristic of the movie other than the main plot. I do however mean to raise an idea that to me continues in Creed, and it is the idea of post-racial story telling.Creed-Movie-Poster

In Creed, we have a young Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, seeking out the retired Rocky Balboa that he might train the young fighter. He of course does, and away the movie goes from there. This movie was widely praised (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) by critics, but equally under represented at the major award ceremonies. Many speculated that it was part of a bigger problem, that Hollywood didn’t respect any minority heavy properties, specifically at the Academy Awards. It was this, along with snubs for Straight Outta Compton and Beast of No Nation (at least Idris Elba) that kicked off the #OscarsSoWhite movement.

Creed was filled with hip hop cultural references and themes, but not to make a point. There are no racial points to be made in this movie. It subverts some racial movie tropes, and mostly is a story of relationship. A trainer and trainee, what it means to be family, dealing with pride and truth, and the idea of owning who you are, not being owned by who you are. Whites and blacks simply interact in normal ways. Rocky doesn’t make slang jokes to ‘relate’ to how protegé, they are just both who they are, and they get along because of common interests.

I know these are not the only two movies to deal with the subject of race in part by dismissing it, and I question if the director would agree with this assessment of his work, or if perhaps I am grasping at an understanding that is not actually presenting what plays out on-screen.  What these two movies do is show a consistent style from Coogler that in his direction and his dialogue he has a clear understanding that equality doesn’t come from sameness. I like to think that an America with out racism looks like Creed. A white trainer and a black boxer fight through literal life and death, and there is no need for the gratuitous calling out of this difference.

I don’t know how America get to this point, but with more artist like Jordan and Coogler putting for post racial movies, maybe the answers can seep into our collective consciousness.

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