(The other) Hank’s Recommendations 01/14/14

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebAfter a bit of a dry spell, the DVD taps are opening again and a rush of long awaited releases is upon us. Coming out this week are two highly anticipated movies dealing with race in America: LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER and FRUITVALE STATION.

The Butler—the director’s name was appended to the title because of a lawsuit over the rights to the unadorned “The Butler”—was the star-studded, big budget release. Based on a true story, it tells contemporary African-American history through the perception of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), a butler who served seven Presidents at the White House. Gaines, who witnesses his father being gunned down in a cotton field by the son of the white plantation owner, flees the Jim Crow South for Washington, D.C., taking with him the deferential attitudes towards white supremacy that was often necessary for survival under segregation. But, as Bob Dylan sang, the times are a-changing. Gaines lands a position in the Eisenhower White House at a time when the civil rights movement is challenging the old racial order.

Gaines keeps his head down but his son Louis gets caught up in the social ferment, landing in jail for participating in nonviolent civil disobedience and precipitating a rift with his father. The Butler is a serious movie but not necessarily a deep one. In trying to present some fifty years of tumult in a little over two hours, it touches on a historical events—civil rights marches, Vietnam, Watergate—like a stone skipping over the surface of a lake. Still, Daniels’ effort is enlivened by the fine performances of Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria and David Oyelwo as his son Louis.

Fruitvale Station is an exceptional film, small-scale but ambitious. Where Lee Daniels’ The Butler tries to encompass the sweep of a half-century of social history, Fruitvale Station focuses on a single day—the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. Directed by first-time director Ryan Coogler, it is also based on a true story, the New Year’s Day 2009 killing of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit patrolman. This focus enables Coogler to dig deeper, to really uncover the tragedy and humanity behind the headline. Michael B. Jordan—a young character actor who played Wallace in HBO series THE WIRE—plays Grant with immense feeling and sensitivity.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler dramatizes how much things have changed. But Fruitvale Station demonstrates how, in important ways, things have changed too little. How did Oscar Grant end up shot in the back in the titular train station? By following his mother’s advice to be safe by not taking the car for his New Year’s Eve revels with his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz) and his friends. But there is still no safe place for a young black man in America.