From ‘Precious’ To ‘Fruitvale’ And ‘Blue Caprice,’ Sundance As Showcase For Black Stars

This post discusses plot points from Fruitvale and Blue Caprice, both of which are based on true events.

Before The Weinstein Company bought 26-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale, an examination of the 24 hours that lead up to the shooting death of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Eve in 2008, Mike Fleming Jr. wrote on Deadline that “The feeling from buyers I’ve spoken to who’ve seen it is that Fruitvale has the potential to be one of those festival pictures that come out of nowhere — like Precious and Beasts Of The Southern Wild — to capture audience and critical acclaim.”

What Fleming didn’t note in his post is that Fruitvale, Precious, and Beasts Of The Southern Wild all star African-American actors, and both Fruitvale and Precious, which was directed by Lee Daniels, were directed by African-American men. Sundance has gotten more buzz this festival for the number of films in its narrative feature competition that were directed by women. But it’s equally important to note the festival’s role in creating buzz for films about African-American characters that translate into distribution deals and profits: Precious made $47.6 million domestically on a production budget of $10 million, while the even lower-budget Beasts has made $11.5 million on a $1.8 million production budget.

Two of the best movies I saw at this year’s festival, Fruitvale and Blue Caprice, an examination of the growth of a fictionalized version of the relationship between Beltway Snipers John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), directed by Kanye West collaborator Alexandre Moors, fell into that category. To a certain extent, they’re formally similar chronicles of deaths foretold. Both begin with footage of the real-world events they explore, Blue Caprice with a montage of news footage of Muhammad and Malvo’s killing spree, and Fruitvale with cell phone video of Grant’s shooting on the BART platform. But from there, they become complementary movies on separate paths. If Fruitvale is about how prejudicial suspicion of black men can inject deadly violence into a specific life at random, Blue Caprice explores how two men build a highly specific and fatal future.

In Fruitvale, Oscar (an exceptional Michael B. Jordan) is year out of prison and almost compulsively on the make, a young man attempting to close the gap between his considerable charm and his lack of discipline. As the movie begins, he’s just talked his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) into taking him back after he cheated on her, though he’s less successful in talking the grocery store manager who fired him for lateness into giving him back his job, even when he tries to manipulate the man’s emotions and white liberalism, asking him “You want me selling dope, Brad?” At the store, he flirts with Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), a young white woman who’s gotten herself bollixed up trying to pick fish to fry for her boyfriend for a New Year’s Eve dinner. “It sounds like he’s black,” Oscar teases her, before putting her on the phone with his Grandma Bonnie, who sets Katie straight. When he finally comes clean to Sophina about losing his job, he does it two steps, first telling her that he’s unemployed, and finally admitting that he’s been so for several weeks. In between that admission and ditching a stash of marijuana he intended to sell to make the month’s rent, Oscar’s in a precarious, but hopeful position: he’s made some moves away from both dishonesty and criminality, but hasn’t started to look for legal employment or started to feel a serious pinch. As he tells Sophina, who explained to him of her New Year’s resolution to cut carbs that it takes 30 days to form a habit, he needs to “just not fuck up” for a month.There’s a marvelous specificity to Oscar and his family and friends — one that illustrates the kind of character shading Hollywood products give up when they embrace colorblindness as a false token of progressivism — set against the more general forces that produce Oscar’s death. “Don’t get me no fake-ass card with no white people on it,” Oscar’s sister Chantay (Destiny Ekwueme) warns him as they prepare to celebrate their mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. “Get me a black card.” Oscar, ham that he is, finds a card with a photograph of a middle-aged white woman on it, just to tweak her. In a flashback to his time in prison, Oscar dreams of getting his daughter into one of the Bay Area’s bilingual schools so she can learn Spanish and use it with Sophina’s family. At the birthday dinner, one of Oscar’s relatives jokes that, though he’s a lifelong Raiders fan, he’ll root for the Steelers in the upcoming Super Bowl because of their “black uniforms, black players, black coach. He even has a black wife.” On the BART on the way into the city for the New Year’s fireworks display, a ride that turns into a raucous party in the subway car, one of Oscar’s friends gets complimented by half of an African-American lesbian couple with whom the group is sharing a blunt. “I like your dreads,” the woman tells him. “I like your everything,” he tells her back. “We gay,” she informs him, fending off the pass. “That’s a coincidence,” the man recovers. “We gay, too…Oscar, ain’t we gay?”

But just because we’ve come to know Oscar as a specific, compelling person doesn’t mean that he can’t be reduced, in a violent instant and by the prejudices of powerful people, to an anonymous and amorphous threat. Given that we know Oscar’s death is approaching, there’s a terrible weight to Oscar’s mother’s suggestion that he take the BART rather than driving in case he wants to drink, to Sophina’s insistence that the couple go out for the evening even though Oscar points out they could count down the waning year at home. Coogler stages the final moments of Oscar’s life with great detail, from a run-in with an old prison adversary that produces a scuffle on the BART, to Oscar’s taking cell phone photos of the badge numbers of the officers who detain him and his friends (though not his white former enemy), to the white officer who reacts badly when he thinks Oscar’s called him a nigger. As Oscar is detained, shot, and begins to bleed to death on the BART platform, we can only react like Katie, who runs into Oscar on the train, and films his murder, screaming at the officers who push her back into the car to stop her. Our witness to his humanity is not enough to counter bias paired with deadly force. Fruitvale may be a movie that makes white audiences — and the overwhelmingly white audience with whom I saw Fruitvale cried audibly into the Q&A; period — feel good about their liberalism, but it also questions how useful that sympathy is unmoored from profound changes in policy and society.

If Fruitvale is about what happens when a specific black man is rendered anonymous and unkillable, Blue Caprice is about what happens when a man becomes convinced that he is uniquely persecuted, and turns his rage against women onto society as a whole for the sins of enabling what he sees as women’s perfidy. When we meet Lee (Richmond), his mother’s just left him alone in Antigua so she can move to the United States. It’s a decision that leaves the deeply withdrawn Lee wandering around an empty house, accumulating a sink full of dirty dishes and draining the contents of their refrigerator, and eventually following a handsome man and his three children. Lee’s loneliness is so profound, and the image of a functional father so powerful that Lee literally walks into ocean water he can’t swim in to attract the man’s attention: unmet needs for rescue and care turn into an almost predatory instinct.

But it’s clear almost as soon as he’s invited into their home that Lee’s rescuer, John (Washington) hasn’t restored him to normalcy. “Remember, you guys are on a special vacation with Papa,” John tells his children. “And if Mama comes, you couldn’t see Papa anymore. Is that what you want, for Papa to get in trouble?” As it becomes clear, John’s a custodial kidnapper, and when his children are taken from him (events that happen off-screen in a nine-month time lapse), he brings Lee to Washington State with him in their place, claiming him as his son, and a fulfillment of John’s own need for someone to worship him, and to validate his consuming rage at the fact his children were taken from him, and a restraining order placed against him.

“I used to live here. People used to live here,” John tells Lee on a tour of his old neighborhood in Washington. “Some people turned into vampires…Sucked me dry…There are some evil people in this world…That’s what they do. They take your kids away. They say I kidnapped my kids. How can I kidnap my own kids?” Lee tells his mentor that “Vampires can’t die. Sorry. They aren’t people.” But even though he appears to be pushing back against John, Lee’s demonstrating the extent to which he’s being absorbed into John’s worldview: John is persecuted, and his enemies are both inhuman and difficult to dispatch or dismiss. It’s a vision of the world that escalates over time. “I can’t take her to court,” John tells Lee of his ex-wife, who keeps evading him. “Not that it would do any good. They never give custody to the father.” Shopping in a supermarket, John turns his rage on a wider aperture, preaching to Lee that “They think all of this is permanent…All it would take is a little push. Only a few bodies. Five or six a day for thirty days. Random targets. Not random targets. They think it’s men? Do a woman. Think it’s women? Kill a kid. Think it’s kids, kill a pregnant woman. Kill a cop.”

And John requires Lee to demonstrate his fidelity to that worldview. “Bitch wants to call me a liar. She’s a liar. They’re all liars,” John rants after his girlfriend catches him stealing her jewelry and kicks both him and Lee out of the house. “I brought you here. I gave you all this. It’s not enough to just say the words. You have to prove it. Do you love me? Then you have to do something for me.” The “something” Lee chooses to do is deeply informed by John’s misogyny and paranoia.

After that, when they prepare to expand their campaign beyond the site of John’s personal grievances, they try to buy arms from a white dealer (The Wire’s Leo Fitzpatrick), who mistakes their complaints for racial ones. “I’m not down for your cause, this Black Panther shit,” he warns John and Lee. But African-American men are as capable of generalized misogyny and and messianic fantasies as white ones are. John dreams of extending his plan, telling Lee “We’ll pick a spot up in the woods in Canada. Find other kids like you, train them…Send them into other cities to do what we did…The beauty is, even if we lose, we wake people up. We still win.” He’s as particular in his hatreds as Oscar Grant is in his loves and hopes.