Monday, July 22, 2013

Fruitvale Station (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler

Fruitvale Station is the kind of movie made if you want to be outraged in a post-George Zimmerman world. With the controversial "not guilty" verdict coming down just a day after Fruitvale's premiere, the cynic inside of me felt like The Weinstein Company may have been the only liberal-agenda'd organization happy with the controversial jury decision (obviously, I'm being facetious). There's no way the filmmakers or the Weinsteins could have known that history would be so fated and play such a sorrowful note of timing, but this is the world that we live in and this is the vacuum in which Fruitvale will likely be viewed. It's not totally fair, but it's something that is so apparent in any theater screening this film that it almost has to be a talking point as you head out of the theater. If this were a piece of fiction, it would have felt eerily prescient. But its base in fact only leaves us with a rather bleak reality filled with a pattern of racially-charged violence.

I guess I should warn now that this review contains what may be seen as major spoilers. It's hard to discuss the film otherwise. It was a big news story in 2008, so I assume most people already know the story (I was actually totally ignorant of it and found out - you guessed it - by reading a review), but if you don't know the details and don't want to know, I'd turn away now. 

The film details the final twenty-four hours in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) who was killed in the Fruitvale BART Station in San Francisco. Grant, unarmed, was killed by an uppity police officer after Grant was involved in a fight on the train. The incident was caught by several people recording on their camera phones where it became an internet fiasco and led to the firing and retiring of many members of the San Francisco, not to mention the imprisonment of the officer responsible. It was one of many examples throughout the last few decades documenting that America's claim of "post-racial" life after the election of Barack Obama is pretty fucking laughable. Fruitvale Station opens with the real grainy cell phone footage of the event, as we see Oscar being thrown face first to the pavement, an officer's knee digging into his neck before the fatal shooting.

Showing the event before the start of the movie gives Fruitvale a heavy, ominous tone throughout, hanging in the audience's mind. Most of the movie is actually about Oscar's actions throughout the day. Not only is it New Year's Eve, but its also the birthday of his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). His plan is to get everything he needs for Wanda's bountiful birthday feast before heading to San Francisco to watch the New Year's fireworks at midnight. Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), is frustrated with him. They have a young daughter, of which he's already spent much time away from for various prison terms, and Oscar also has trouble holding down a job. To supplement the lack of an honest income, Oscar plans to sell weed. Sophina isn't exactly pleased with Oscar's back up plan and would like him to at least try to be a responsible father to their daughter.

Oscar's activities throughout the day range from meandering (his gas station run-in with a stray bulldog is a painfully obvious attempt at symbolism) to obligation. He shows up at his grocery store job to pick up some food for the birthday party, and ends up trying to win his job back from his boss. It doesn't really work out. Oscar is tormented by the apparent crossroads in front of him. At 22, serious adulthood is staring him right in the face, and in a single day, he's faced with several choices that may have major impact on his life going forward. Does he really wanna go back to dealing drugs after getting out of prison? How else can he provide for his family? All the while, the knowledge of what will become at the end of the day suffocates the viewing, with each interaction and statement carrying more weight than the one that preceded it.

As Oscar, Michael B. Jordan dominates. In almost every frame, Jordan's slack-jawed visage - whether it be in his infectious smile or raucous scowl - is the image of the film. Jordan has had success on television, with Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, but this is his first major film and definitely his first lead. Jordan and director Ryan Cooger both seem aware of the dangers of making Oscar messianic, which is why he's shown unfiltered, a walking contradiction: immature and short-tempered, but caring and charming. An early two-part scene, where he first gracefully helps a customer at the grocery store, then moments later tries to his intimidate his boss into giving him his job back, is a perfect illustration of the dichotomy in his personality and probably the best scene in the movie. Melonie Diaz is equally impressive here, crafting a full person while working with so much less screen time. It would have been easy for her to go the route of Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing, but she instead sidesteps stereotype, proving to the audience why she's the perfect one for Oscar. Octavia Spencer plays a role very familiar in black film, the strong-minded but worried matriarch, but Spencer plays her scenes perfectly and the chemistry between her and Jordan adds a sweet dimension to the film.

The film was written and directed by the 27-year-old Ryan Coogler, his first feature. It's an impressive debut; candidly shot with a lot of trust shown in his steady group of actors. Stray bulldog aside, the film does not really scream "first film" at you too much. Instead, it's a more delicate experience than many may realize. One thing a film like Fruitvale does is reinforce how great the similarly racially-charged Do The Right Thing is (also made by a black filmmaker, Spike Lee), but while Do The Right Thing is bombastic and obnoxious, pressing on about how "important" it is (and it is), Fruitvale instead speaks quietly. You might even be able to parse some cynicism from the film's seeming tired resignation, but Fruitvale, like Lee's film, does have that ever-dreaded "message". It just sends that message through channels that don't make it feel like a classroom. Do The Right Thing may be the greatest movie ever made about race. Fruitvale's range is a little more pointed.

And while the Zimmercan case will definitely help Fruitvale sell tickets, I already fear that the redundancies that play between this story and current events may lead some audience members to paint the movie as heavy-handed. Coogler's most impressive work throughout this film is how modestly he chooses to tell this tale. I, for one, was surprised by how little Coogler actually pushes race onto the audience throughout the movie, he just presents the events with an almost nonchalant eye - further impressing that it's not something that needs to be pushed, because it's always hanging around whether you draw attention to it or not. But all that subtlety is pushed through an angry megaphone, screaming injustice into the crowded seats, with the community now ready for outrage for Trayvon Martin. I've seen this complaint made already and it's hard to argue with anyone who feels this way. The sinking feeling that comes with watching this film's conclusion falls violent on top of the theater. When my screening was over, I saw several people sobbing, I noticed a few people leave before the end so filled with frustration, and I can only imagine there was a quiet minority rolling their eyes.

In the end, it's going to be hard to separate the film and that event. It's like a perfect storm. It's a shame, because Fruitvale is already great and I hope this tiny little film does not get overexposed by the periphery. The film's final act does become a sobfest, effectively producing outrage over the tragic event and its effect on several people. But in its entirety, Fruitvale is a terrific meditation on life and its value. Oscar Grant will always be a symbol, or more cynically: a statistic. The film's opening moments reinforces this: Grant as a blurry-faced black man in monochromatic clothing, manhandled by police officers - a more tragic Rodney King. But Coogler really wants us to know Oscar, and with each scene, each conversation and each contradiction, Oscar slowly becomes a very real person to us (helped greatly by Jordan's brilliant performance). And that is why, by the film's end, you will be even more enraged - because now we know Oscar as more than a statistic.

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