Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station
Directed by:  Ryan Coogler.
Written by: Ryan Coogler.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Oscar Grant), Melonie Diaz (Sophina), Octavia Spencer (Wanda), Kevin Durand (Officer Caruso), Chad Michael Murray (Officer Ingram), Ahna O'Reilly (Katie), Ariana Neal (Tatiana), Keenan Coogler (Cato), Trestin George (Brandon), Joey Oglesby (Cale), Michael James (Carlos), Marjorie Shears (Grandma Bonnie), Destiny Ekwueme (Chantay).

Fruitvale Station is not a perfect movie, but it is an important one. Like many first time directors, Ryan Coogler’s films has a few flaws in it – a few moments that are too on the nose in terms of metaphors and foreshadowing, an over reliance on hand held camera work where none is needed, etc. And yet, the film still feels vital, alive and completely necessary. In the wake of a tragedy like what happens to Oscar Grant in this movie and in real life – or what happened to Trayvon Martin – people seem to want make these young, black men into something they were not – a villain or a martyr if you will. What Coogler’s film does is see Oscar Grant as a human being first – as a flawed individual who is trying, with limited success, to get his life on track. It’s far too easy to make Oscar Grant into a symbol – and that kind of misses the point. In an era where some delusional people insist we live in a “post-racial” world a movie like Fruitvale Station is important.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant and his friends were coming home on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transportation). A fight broke out, the BART police were called, and Grant and his friends were lined up against the wall to be arrested. Things spiral out of control – and eventually one of the police officers drew their gun and shot Grant in the back – killing him. Fruitvale Station opens with real grainy, cell-phone footage of the confrontation, before flashing back and showing us the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan).
It is a rather mundane day – but as we watch Oscar go through his routine, we start to develop a complete picture of who he is. He loves his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), although he has recently been caught cheating on her (and given how charming and flirtatious he is with a young woman at a store, may well cheat on her again given the chance). He loves his four year daughter Tatiana even more – wants desperately to go straight and have a normal life – even though he is still dealing pot, and has recently lost his job at a grocery store for being perpetually late. He wants to make his mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) proud – and she can still give him a swift kick in the ass if that’s what he needs at the time. He is funny, charming and likable. He is also quick to anger, and that easy charm can turn somewhat threatening at times. Oscar is, flaws and all, believably real and sympathetic.

Now, if that seems too simplistic too you, I won’t really argue. In a perfect world, a movie like Fruitvale Station wouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Far too often, popular culture portrays young men like Oscar Grant as violent, sociopathic thugs – people who you should be afraid of. This image is sold to young, black men some of whom model themselves on what they see, and to others, who immediately fear them. Would Oscar Grant have been shot if he was white? Did the police react the way they did because of what Oscar was doing that night, or because they were afraid of him because of what they see on TV every day? Would George Zimmerman been suspicious of Trayvon Martin had he been white? What was it about a young, black man in a hoodie that made Zimmerman think he should be followed and confronted?

For the most part, Coogler does an excellent job at writing and directing Fruitvale Station. The film reminded me of the work of the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, who simply follow their characters and allow their day-to-day lives to slowly emerge, and develop a portrait of them as people. Coogler may over reach at times – a scene with a dog being hit by a car is too on the nose, as is a scene where Oscar goes to meet a customer to sell him pot – but for the most part, this is an uncommonly confident debut film from him. He is aided greatly by the performance of Michael B. Jordan, who like the movie itself, doesn’t lay it on too thick making Oscar into a saint, but presents him as a flawed person, trying to do the right thing, and sometimes failing.

Because of the patience shown by Coogler and Jordan in their portrayal of Oscar, Fruitvale Station builds to an emotionally devastating climax. Walking into the theater, you know how the movie will end, but I defy anyone to watch the movie and not end up wiping away tears. The film is also aided greatly in this regard by Octavia Spencer – infinitely better here than in her Oscar winning performance in The Help (which was one of the better things about that movie) – especially in the movie’s one flashback to show a visit she makes to Oscar in jail, and in the film’s closing scenes which are an emotional gut punch.

Fruitvale Station in an important movie, because it shows us a side of Oscar Grant that most movies don’t even bother to show. Most movies take place in the realm of black and white – everyone is either good or bad, there’s no in between. Fruitvale Station is a movie that knows that those terms are flawed and unrealistic – no one is really 100% good or 100% bad (it may have been better to show the cops at the end of the movie a little softer in this regard). It’s impact would have been dimmed however if it wasn’t a great movie on its own terms – if it wasn’t as well written, directed and acted as it is. Fruitvale Station is an important movie, and it has something to say – but it doesn’t play like a sermon. And that’s probably the biggest reason why the film works so well.

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