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Thursday, July 11, 2013
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/PopcornReel.com
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
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
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.)
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
Also with: Ahna O'Reilly, Chad Michael Murray.
"Fruitvale Station is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for
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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