Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Last Stop For Oscar Grant, And A Deadly One, In 2009

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Ryan Coogler's true-life drama "Fruitvale Station".  The Weinstein Company

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, July 11, 2013

The image above is intense but the climax of Ryan Coogler's excellent drama "Fruitvale Station" proves far more powerful, moving and heartbreaking.  Based on true events on the final day of 22-year-old father Oscar Grant's life, "Fruitvale Station" chronicles Mr. Grant's New Year's Eve in 2008 in the Northern California cities of Hayward and Oakland, a day which would end in death for Mr. Grant on a platform of the aforementioned BART station on New Year's morning in 2009.

Directed meticulously and imbued with warmth and humanity, "Fruitvale Station" celebrates life, love and people.  Mr. Grant is portrayed with deft, skillful balance by Michael B. Jordan.  Mr. Grant is full of contradictions and compassion as he helps strangers, gets into trouble, loses his job and is charismatic and engaging.  He has abiding love for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), their daughter Tatiana and especially his beloved mother (a superb Octavia Spencer), whose birthday falls on New Year's Eve.  Scenes between Mr. Jordan and Ms. Spencer are the film's best, played, as is the vast majority of the entire 93-minute experience, with an unmistakable authenticity and plaintive open-heartedness.  Oscar and his mother have a tangled relationship and they aim to repair some of the damage caused by Oscar's waywardness and his mother's neglect.

Mr. Coogler's cameras achieve an intimacy throughout that draws us to the film's relatable central figure.  Mr. Grant isn't glamorized, glorified or prettified.  He just is, warts and all.  He's a volatile figure.  He loves people.  Oscar, a family man, lives through technology, and "Fruitvale Station" shows him continuously texting, his texts illuminated large on the big screen.  Phones are a critical chorus of unity among strangers as well as familiars during the film, a rallying cry of eyewitnesses and a crucial advocacy document for justice. 

George Holliday emerged in 1991 with his camcorder taping of the L.A.P.D. brutality against Rodney King.  Almost 20 years later many largely unnamed S.F. Bay Area residents rang in 2009 with their cellphones recording not New Year's fireworks but the horrific execution of an unarmed man.  Their actual, much-publicized and widely-viewed videos of Mr. Grant's killing -- which I still cannot bring myself to see to this very day -- are recreated in such gripping and disturbing fashion here that it is difficult to hear let alone watch them.  Between Rodney King (who has since died) and Oscar Grant, the 20-year gap only illustrates how technology has become integral to capturing events instantly and sharing them globally within half-seconds.  Mr. Coogler taps into this with his style choices of texts and cellphone cameras.

"Fruitvale Station" is an eloquent cinematic marvel, presenting images clearly, resonantly and poetically.  Mr. Coogler's images call little attention to themselves yet are cumulatively pronounced and rise to crescendo.  No one may think much of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train continuously seen and heard speeding by in the background but each new time the train appears its presence grows as an ominous foreboding and uncomfortable anthem.  And the last unforgettable time, a lit BART train moving on an elevated track against a dark night is shrouded in a such a dreaded yet stunning cinematographic hellish darkness that is so nightmarish it is utterly and genuinely scary.  Rachel Morrison's camerawork is top-notch.

Mr. Coogler, who also wrote the film, shows loving families, financial struggles, unsavory behavior, humor and intimacy.  These moments are mostly without expansive choreography, though four images of Oscar's physical proximity to others -- images of Mr. Jordan on or near the ground, whether with several kids, a dog, wrestling with corrections officers during a 2007 flashback, or at the film's tragic resolution -- are superb metaphorical flourishes for a man literally wrestling with the varying threads and contradictions in and outside of himself, in his environment and his heart.  These scenes are alternately full of passion, desperation, anger, fear or cruelty, and sometimes composite. 

There's a masterful aspect in how each physical, emotional element surrounding Mr. Grant that we've glimpsed early on confluences late on so suddenly and volcanically.  The suddenness is a violence unto itself.  The encounter with overzealous BART police officers is overwhelming, harrowing and extremely tense, with one officer so vicious and menacing he looks animalistic.  Such physical and visceral representations of police are rare on film, and Mr. Coogler scores many points in recreating the terror Mr. Grant (and many black men) must have felt.  Kevin Durand, who plays the overly aggressive cop, makes his character so convincing.  The violent confrontation happens so fast, and is so kinetic and palpably real that it would be unbearable even if the film's events were pure fiction.  Sadly, though, they are a regular, almost daily occurrence in America.

To the director's credit "Fruitvale Station" refrains from the politics surrounding Mr. Grant's unjustified killing, forgoing explicit identification of Johannes Mehserle, the 26-year-old BART police officer who said he pulled his gun from his holster thinking it was a Taser to restrain an already prone and face-down Mr. Grant, who had his hands behind his back.  Title cards at film's end bluntly spell out the outcome of Mr. Mehserle's trial and the violent reverberations in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Wisely, "Fruitvale Station" sticks to the story of the man at the center of community outrage and a nation's horror.  Too often victims of police killings are submerged by politics and agendas but the director's focus is laser sharp.

Winner of awards this year at Sundance and Cannes, "Fruitvale Station" arrives at a crucial time in America.  Opening in select U.S. cities tomorrow (July 12), the film comes as jurors will hear closing arguments and deliberate on the fate of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black male teenager in Florida on Oscar night Sunday, February 26, 2012.  Mr. Martin's death has widely been viewed (by myself included) as cold-blooded murder.  Mr. Coogler's painful and potent film merits awards season attention, and it is sadly interesting that a film about an Oscar who was just getting his life together might even be in position to contend for an far less significant and symbolic kind of Oscar in 2014.  The director and its screenplay are worthy nominees.

Like Mr. Martin, Mr. Grant's death is shrouded in race, racism and the centuries-long litany of unjustified and un-redressed killings of black men (many of whom are unarmed) by white male cops or white male civilians who subsequently use defenses of perception, profiling, "accident" and "mistakenness" -- all of which play into the psyche of overtly (or subconsciously) racist societies and how some whites within them view black men collectively.  Not to mention the way black men are often characterized by American mainstream media (as a "wolfpack" in April 1989 by the New York City media in "The Central Park Five".)  Or to mention how some sports commentators reinvigorate stereotypes about black athletes (hence Serena Williams' "power"; use of terms like "robbery", "mugging", "taking it to the house" for NFL football and NBA.)  And there's Vogue's July 2008 cover of LeBron James, or Vanity Fair's February 2010 cover of Tiger Woods.

Noteworthy is that Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, who was detained and frisked in a New York City deli in 2013 and accused of shoplifting from it -- was a producer of this fine film, which ironically doesn't focus on racism in particular save for a key moment or two.

Without Mr. Grant's sad untimely and actual death occurring "Fruitvale Station" (originally titled "Fruitvale") would be a great film.  It is a little better than that. 

Also with: Ahna O'Reilly, Chad Michael Murray.

"Fruitvale Station is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 33 minutes.  The film opens in San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Los Angeles and Berkeley tomorrow, before expanding later this month.

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