Directed by Ryan Coogler. US. 2013. R. 85 minutes. Weinstein. 35mm.
Fri., August 30, 2013 thru Thu., September 5, 2013
“What is the value of a young black mans life? That question should have been settled long agoor never askedbut it remains enragingly alive, and it has been posed again, with uncanny timing and force, in the new independent film Fruitvale Station. The movie is based on a true story. On New Years Eve, 2008, Oscar Grant III, twenty-two years old, was out with friends in San Francisco. Going home to the East Bay on a BART train, a few hours after midnight, he got into a fight with a white thug who baited him. The police removed Grant and his friends from the train and detained them at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, where Grant, lying face down on the platform, was shot by a panicked BART cop. The officer later said that he reached for his Taser and pulled out his gun by mistake. Grant died the next morning; the policeman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served eleven months. In 2011, Ryan Coogler, a twenty-four-year-old African-American film student at the University of Southern California, approached the actor and producer Forest Whitaker with an idea for telling Oscar Grants story. Whitaker signed on immediately, and the movie was reportedly made for less than a million dollars. Fruitvale Station is a confident, touching, and, finally, shattering directorial début. Coogler begins with an actual cell-phone video of the killing taken by a bystandera shaky and distant record in which we see Oscar and his friends lying on the platform, and the police, alarmed by the crowd cursing at them, trying to control the situation. We hear a shot; onlookers gasp. The rest of Fruitvale Station re-creates the last twenty-four hours of Grants life. The day surges toward the moment on the platform with an appalling finality.
Coogler uses Oscars cell-phone calls as a means of framing the different elements in his life. December 31st was a busy day, in which Oscar gives up selling marijuana (which has landed him in prison in the past); attempts to get back a job that he lost two weeks earlier; and buys food for his mothers birthday partya happy family gathering that takes place early in the evening. Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), who plays Oscar, has a dazzling smile and an easy way about himphysically, Oscar glides through his life with complete assurance. He has an affectionate but difficult relationship with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his young daughter, whom he adores. Sophina wants him to shape up. Shes not the only one. Oscar is charming and friendly, but theres something lost and irresolute about him that drives the people who love him crazy. Its hard for him to be straight with them: he delays telling Sophina and his tough-talking mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), that he was fired. We can see from a prison sequence set in the past that hes fearless and wont let anyone push him around. Yet if hes overprepared to fight for himself, hes underprepared to earn a living and take care of a family. Hes an uncertain young man who is just possibly shifting, at the New Year, toward a steadier life.
Coogler is unafraid of emotionOctavia Spencer, with her big round eyes and her commanding voice, anchors our angry response to the tragedybut he hasnt made a tearjerker. The scene at the station is a nightmare of confusion, and Coogler doesnt make clear why the police detained only the young black menapart from the implicit racial explanation. But he isnt interested in settling scores or in issuing racial sermons, either. If anything, the movie offers a wistful hope of solidarity: Oscar, during his last day, has several pleasant encounters with whites. The tolerant, friendly atmosphere of the Bay Area is one reason that the finale is so heartbreaking. Fruitvale Station sums up Oscars life, but the act of summing up can tell us only so much, since a young life is still a maze of promise and indecision. From the evidence of this movie, Oscar Grant was smart and foolish, loving and irresponsible, candid and evasive, and now hes another young black man gone.” (David Denby, The New Yorker)
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