Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” Humanizes Oscar Grant, Captures Complexity

Fruitvale Station Poster

**Photo Credit ipawards

On Friday, “Fruitvale Station,” an award-winning film at Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals produced by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, opened in theaters in Washington, D.C., a week ahead of its nationwide release. The urban drama is about Oscar Grant, the unarmed young black man fatally shot by a white transit police officer who allegedly mistook his taser for his gun during an altercation at a BART station in Oakland, Calif. on New Year’s Day 2009.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first full-length feature of 27-year-old, Ryan Coogler, a San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center youth counselor and football star, turned filmmaker. Oakland-raised, he filmed “Fruitvale Station” in real-life locations there and centered its sound design on the BART trains’ screeches and moans. Coogler, who began writing the script as a film student at USC, said he was inspired to make the film because of a number of parallels he noticed between himself and 22-year-old Grant.

“Just look at him. We were the same age, from the same place — the East Bay. His friends looked like my friends. At that time, we all dressed the same. In the film, the characters who play the roles of his friends are like the people I grew up with, that’s how interchangeable it is. I’ve been in situations where you get stopped by police — it’s not something unfamiliar,” Coogler said to Los Angeles Times reporter Pat Morrison in an interview.

The release of the film is aptly, yet uncannily timed and its heaviness amplified by the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman that has stirred up a firestorm of outrage and cries of injustice since the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager, was lawfully justified through the upholding of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

After feeling personally unsettled by the Zimmerman verdict and the message it sent to me about the insufficient value this country seems to place on black Americans’ lives, I was prompted to see if “Fruitvale Station” measured up to all the overwhelmingly positive hype.

The film somberly traces the final day of Oscar Grant as he makes New Year’s resolutions with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) vowing to atone for his past mistakes and create a better future for her and their daughter. Quoting Oprah Winfrey, he tells her at one point, “It only takes 30 days to form a habit, then it becomes second nature.”

As Coogler’s camera captures the dramatization of Grant’s encounters with his friends, family, and strangers from mustering the self-discipline to turn his back on the drug-dealing that sent him to prison to the heart-melting adoration he showers on his daughter (played precociously by Ariana Neal) to putting his grandmother on the phone to help a stranger with fish-frying tips, Grant whose character was called into question once his death made headlines is humanized. Over the course of the 84-minute film, I came to see his deep complexity which sheds light on the fact that no one is 100 percent good or bad.

Although I already knew that Grant’s life would end tragically and the artfully rendered and skillfully paced scenes of “Fruitvale Station” implied a nail-biting countdown to his gut-wrenching death, I made the mistake of forgetting to bring plenty of tissue. During the final scenes, my heart sank and I struggled to pacify the emotions that welled up inside me. I tried my best to choke back tears. I heard others in the audience doing the same–more or less gracefully. I shuttered at the thought of how unbelievably quick an enjoyable time spent with loved ones on New Year’s Eve could careen violently towards heartbreak and derail in tragedy.

Perhaps my spilling forth of emotion was not merely a response reserved for Grant, but was magnified by the mourning I had been harboring for Trayvon Martin’s senseless death too.

The immense sadness I felt during the film was made easy by the dynamic chemistry among the cast members and the stunning acting of Michael B. Jordan whose depiction of Grant entailed such intensity and depth, in one moment sensitive and endearing and in another, fuming and menacing. Jordan’s superb acting in the film has drummed up Oscar nomination buzz and confirmed for me why I was fond of his portrayal of the character “Wallace” in the popular series, “The Wire.”

“Fruitvale Station” serves as another lens for examining race relations in the U.S.  Similarly to the Trayvon Martin tragedy and its aftermath, it confronts its audience with the harsh reality that as a nation with a legacy of slavery and racial inequality, we still have not arrived at a “post-racial society,” delivered from our deep-seated personal and institutionalized racial biases.

**Rated R. Nationwide release 7/26/13. Contains some violence, profanity throughout and some drug use. 84 minutes.

In addition to “Fruitvale Station,” I recommend checking out Ryan Coogler’s student film, “Locks.”

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Save the Children Report Reveals Nearly 50 Million Children Out of School In Conflict Zones

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                                  **Photo Credit WikiImages via Pixabay

Save the Children International, an organization that serves children and families, released a report last week stating that attacks on education are on the rise with nearly 50 million children out of school living in conflict-ridden countries around the world. The report was released on the eve of Malala Day, in which Pakistan schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 16th birthday by delivering an inspirational speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

In 2012, Yousafzai was targeted and gunned down as she went to school by the Taliban for being outspoken for girls’ education. Her tragedy galvanized global attention to the plight that many girls face.

Unfortunately, Save the Children’s report sheds light on the harsh reality that Yousafzai’s horrific experience is a widespread occurrence for children living in conflict-affected countries.

“This is an issue that many children around the world are being denied their right to learn and we want to shed light on how broad an issue this is. Many schools and education systems are really being attacked and we need to make sure that people are aware of this issue,” Heather Simpson, Senior Director for Education and Child Development at Save the Children International said to Voice of America’s reporter Frances Alonzo during a phone interview.

The report finds that in 2012, there were more than 3,600 documented attacks on education, including violence, torture, and intimidation against children and teachers. Some of these attacks resulted in death or serious injuries. Armed groups have been wreaking havoc on communities by shelling and bombing schools, destroying school materials such as books, desks, chalkboards, and recruiting school-aged children, according to the report.

Since the onset of the Syria conflict, 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged, or occupied for purposes other than education.

The report reveals that at the primary school level, there are close to 29 million children out of school living in conflict-affected countries and nearly 55 percent of those children are girls.

“Girls face challenges in conflict as well as outside of conflict. In many cases, girls are already at a disadvantage before conflict sets in; however, under conflict, girls and female teachers are especially vulnerable for things like gender based violence,” Simpson said.

In conflict-torn countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, the education of girls and women has been targeted by extremist groups in an effort to undermine their roles in society, explained Simpson.

However, in light of these difficult circumstances, fathers can play a significant role in combating militia groups and ensuring the education of their daughters.

“In many cases, fathers are the real champions for their daughters and when we’re working in communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we see the biggest long-term impact on girls’ education when we can get fathers really engaged on this issue and really see that investing in their girls’ education is an investment in their own families and…in their own future communities,” said Simpson.

Save the Children’s work with communities in Pakistan through home-centered book clubs and reading camps has contributed to considerable literacy gains. In a particular case, only one percent of girls at the beginning of the school year could read with comprehension, but through Save the Children’s support, that percentage jumped to one-third.

Simpson acknowledged that Save the Children’s work there, in part, hinged on support from the fathers and the communities of those girls.

“It (takes) commitment of those fathers and of those community members to really see their girls as an investment and as something that they’re willing to protect and willing to make sure they have those learning opportunities even when there (are) pressures from extremist groups,” Simpson told Alonzo.

Save the Children has played a hand in training teachers to be pillars of psycho-social support to their students. Teachers in conflict zones play a critical role in helping their students develop skills that will enable them to resist being drawn into conflict and recruited by guerilla groups.

“One of the most important things is to let children know they are not alone,” Simpson told Alonzo.

In Nepal, the government has intervened by deeming schools and school buses as “Zones of Peace,” free from attack by militia groups. School committees, PTAs, community members as well as students have built walls to protect their schools and drawn up a list of practices to help protect themselves and their school communities. Afghanistan and some countries in Africa have looked to Nepal’s successes and are establishing zones of peace for their schools.

Furthermore, Save the Children’s report finds that the high levels of children out of school and the sharp increase in attacks on schools have been exacerbated by shockingly low levels of funding for education in humanitarian emergencies. In 2011, funding for education fell from 2 percent of overall humanitarian funding to only 1.4 percent in 2012, which is well below the 4 percent that the global community has been calling for since 2010.

“Funding for education is low. In some ways, it’s the way donors are sector specific. In (others) ways, it’s the lack of spotlight on the issues, so Save the Children does a lot of humanitarian relief work and education, in our view, is a very critical piece to humanitarian relief,” Simpson said.

Through its report, Save the Children is calling on global leaders to confront this crisis by criminalizing attacks on centers for education, prohibiting the use of schools by militia groups, and increasing the levels of humanitarian funding to education to at least 4 percent of global funding.

Yousafzai’s story and Save the Children’s report are serving as catalysts, making clear that that the stakes for children’s learning in conflict-affected areas are critically high.

“Many conflicts last for ten years, so if a child does not have access to go to school, does not have access to learning opportunities for ten years, we lose that whole generation. But I think it requires us as a global community to really raise awareness on this,” Simpson said.