Note: This piece contains spoilers for both Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Gus van Sant’s Promised Land. You’ve been warned.
In the coming weeks, as Fruitvale Station becomes a breakout hit, much will be written about its parallels to the George Zimmerman case. Indeed, Ryan Coogler’s debut has plenty to say about race relations in America. The problem is it doesn’t want you as a viewer to say anything yourself.
No, with its abrupt ending, Fruitvale Station only wants one thing: for you to get angry. Now there’s nothing wrong with a movie getting you angry about the world we live in. Many documentaries have done this in recent years. But I feel narrative films have even more of a responsibility to tell a full story, instead of just hammering home a point with a sledgehammer. It’s the aggressive push to get angry that bothers me.
For Fruitvale Station, the point is this: an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a white police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. Justice was not served because that officer is not in jail today. By framing the film this way, Coogler is holding the audience captive instead of allowing the film and the complexities of the incident and its aftermath to take hold of us.
The climax of the film, taking place at the titular train station, is a scene full of chaos, as it must have been in those early morning hours. But after Oscar Grant (the terrific Michael B. Jordan) is shot and killed, the movie simply ends with a title card that displays a far less complicated version of the events. Top BART executives retired. The cop who killed Oscar was only convicted of involuntary manslaughter, spending only 11 months in jail.
Fruitvale Station makes no room for the possibility that the cop who killed Oscar—and has to live with that guilt for the rest of his life, even if he’s not in prison—could be telling the truth when he told the jury that he thought he was reaching for his Taser. Multiple reports attest that the cop even said before the shot was fired, “Stand back. I’m gonna tase him.” In Coogler’s film, this piece of information is left out. Otherwise it’s a lot more difficult to make the cop and the jury who convicted him of a lesser charge the villains in this story.
By ending there, and trying to force the audience to feel only outrage, the film comes across as dishonest. Oscar’s death is no less tragic because of his race or how he died. In the script Coogler has written, Oscar had decided to leave behind his drug-dealing ways. Again, does his death become less tragic because he was trying to move beyond a life of crime for his family and for himself?
Coogler has spent the previous hour or so stacking the deck. In the film, Oscar is portrayed as not just a bright young man, but an angel walking among us. He calls his mom on her birthday! He lends his sister money even though he’s struggling to make ends meet! He cares for an injured dog! Again, this doesn’t make his loss any more significant than it already was. As a father, son, lover, and friend, the loss was already severe.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another film that climaxed with the unintentional death of a young black man at the hands of police, didn’t end there, or with the burning of Sal’s Pizzeria. The epilogue, featuring Sal (Danny Aiello) and Mookie (Lee himself) contemplating their next moves, felt infinitely more real, even though the story was fictional. They argue, but then reconcile. They work together in harmony. There’s hope there. It’s not a call to arms. It’s just a great film. Fruitvale Station is only the former and certainly not the latter.
However, some of this can be overlooked since Fruitvale Station is Coogler’s self-assured debut, and there’s passion behind it. The same cannot be said of Gus van Sant’s Promised Land. He’s been active since the ’80s and should know better than to beat us over the head with an oft-repeated message. Even worse, there seems to be no passion. The movie is completely inert.
The film, which was hoping to garner some Oscar consideration last winter, quietly fizzled at the box office. The reunion of the star and director of Good Will Hunting should have been enough to get butts into seats. But sometimes audiences can smell something fishy.
Spun as a simple story about a man from the big city learning to appreciate small-town life, Promised Land is a Trojan horse. It’s really two-plus hours of shouting to us how evil natural gas companies are.
Though we get some rudimentary character development, with Matt Damon and Frances McDormand’s land-rights negotiators falling for some locals, the film is dedicated to the mechanics of trying to get the townspeople to sign leases for their mineral rights.
Just when you think you’ve seen enough of the regularly good-hearted Damon and McDormand play shady manipulators—and both actors are trying their damndest to make boring stuff interesting—along comes the ultra-smug John Krasinski as an environmentalist bent on sending the duo packing.
Later in the film, Krasinski is revealed as a fraud. Damon views this as his chance to close the deal on the town and go back to his new job as VP. But then Krasinski lets it slip that Damon didn’t beat him. He was actually hired by the same natural gas company to even further dupe the townsfolk. The idea was that if he’s lying about what natural gas drilling has done to his hometown, then surely Damon is telling the truth that there’s almost no risk.
Suddenly, Damon grows a conscience and decides to speak out against the company at the town hall the next day. The manipulator can’t stand that he himself was manipulated, so now, after he’s already made his money, it’s time to do the right thing.
If I had wanted to see a film railing against natural gas drilling, I would have watched the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland or its sequel on HBO. As I stated above, a narrative film has a bigger obligation to do more than provoke. It needs to have a good story and tell it well. But Promised Land repeats its simplistic message loudly: Natural gas companies are greedy parasites who will stop at nothing for a profit.
The film makes it clear there are no other options or opinions to be had. Yes, natural gas drilling has inherent risks, but Promised Land doesn’t want to give you a balanced, accurate answer. (The answer is that through further research and regulation, it can be a viable source of energy.) The only position you’re supposed to have after watching is that fracking is too risky and should be abandoned altogether. It’s that same fearmongering that’s kept nuclear energy from ever getting traction.
Both films had potential—and Fruitvale Station had and fulfills that potential more than Promised Land—to be terrific films that also push audiences toward action. But they didn’t need to hide information or display their arguments in such a loud, obvious way. They already had strong cases to make. But showing only one side made those cases weaker.