' ' Cinema Romantico: Fruitvale Station

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fruitvale Station

There is a crucial scene at the midway point of the generally true-to-life account of 23 year old Oscar Grant who was shot and killed by a police officer on a train platform in Oakland on New Year’s Eve 2008. Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan in the film, and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), mother to his son, are in the city with friends and revelers for NYE. It is late. Sophina needs to use the bathroom. No place is open. So Oscar talks a shopkeeper just closing up, a Middle Eastern shopkeeper, into letting her use his restroom. He agrees. He doesn’t even accept Oscar’s offer of his last ten bucks. Then, another couple turns up, a white couple. She is pregnant and needs to use the bathroom, and so Oscar convinces the shopkeeper to allow one more patron. Black. White. Middle Eastern. The world singing in perfect harmony.

I have no idea if this scene actually took place. In the tireless (tired?) “what-did-and-did-not-really-happen” breakdowns regarding this film, I have not seen this scene addressed. It probably didn’t. But maybe it did. I’d at least like to think it did, and why wouldn’t I? It’s essentially “Fruitvale Station” buying the world a Coke. Of course, the scene is also stained by what we know is coming – that is, in but precious little time Oscar will be laying on a BART platform, shot in the back, the harrowing ordeal improbably captured via cellphone footage in the manner of amateur war photography.

The film opens with this footage. It is as disturbing as the first time you saw it. Bullets are discharged from guns and into the bodies of people in movies across the globe at alarming rates, but to hear one bullet fired from one gun into the body of one person for real will still put a lump in your throat. Yet, strictly in cinematic terms, I fear that my issue with the film stems directly from choosing to open with this breath-vanquishing footage.

Consider “Zero Dark Thirty.” That film opened over black with audio of real life phone calls from inside the World Trade Center the morning of Septemeber 11th. This was a scarifying way of showing how everything that happens in the film to come is a result of this. The cellphone footage at the open of “Fruitvale Station” works to show that Oscar Grant is doomed from the get-go. And I am not entirely certain this strengthens the film.

Granted, I am someone who has preached ad nauseum about the benefits of what I like to call Tragic Inevitability, but the tragic death of Oscar Grant, as illustrated via the cellphone footage, was not inevitable. It was sudden and terribly random. Director Ryan Coogler, however, demonstrating significant craft for his first feature, the film moving briskly but never feeling rushed, fills “Fruitvale Station” with portents of doom. A dead pit bull in the street is the most egregious example but even something like Oscar’s mother suggesting he and Sophina take the train into the city rather than driving – which really happened – is made to feel Homer-esque rather than just an unlucky coincidence.

“Fruitvale Station” is very much a Day In The Life Of movie, as we follow Oscar around for the day, leading up to the end, seeing him cast in positives and negatives. It can be difficult to get a precise read on who Oscar Grant was in real life when the angle of any given story causes the media to slant it this way or that way, but the film presents him, more or less, as a good-hearted screw-up. We root for him, but are also fully aware he has foibles.

Jordan’s performance is the essence of likable and Diaz ably conveys the real toll of everyday heroism, but Spencer steals the show. Famous for winning an Oscar for “The Help”, a film which I decidedly did not like, she gives a wondrously realized performance. Even at the bleak end, she never gives up the faith – but she doesn’t not give it up in a showy spiritualized way. Rather she has cultivated someone whose inner strength is so awesome but so unostentatious that improbably, in her own way, she has already managed to find peace on this earth.

She never stops believing her son has earned the right to live. Which is what makes it so unfortunate that the film’s structure goes to such lengths to make it seem as if his death is inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, as always. Oh you're so right about this: "Bullets are discharged from guns and into the bodies of people in movies across the globe at alarming rates, but to hear one bullet fired from one gun into the body of one person for real will still put a lump in your throat."

I first heard of this on NPR when they talked about opening sequence. Without having seen it, I do think it could be problematic. It's so tragic what happened to Oscar, very interesting that this film opened as the verdict for the Zimmerman case was out.

Nick Prigge said...

"...very interesting that this film opened as the verdict for the Zimmerman case was out." I know! The timing!

That's the thing about this movie. It's well intentioned, it's heart is in the right place, it's important.....I just personally had a sort of distant reaction to its stylistic choices in the end.

Alex Withrow said...

Great review. I know we've talked a lot about things that didn't work for you over on my site, so maybe here we can talk about the good. Like Spencer.... wow. The way she handled Oscar's friends in the hospital was something I didn't expect. The way she said, "None of that!" felt so real to me.

And I too agree that the film was brisk, but never rushed. I would like to track down one of these stories you mentioned, that tirelessly detailed what did and didn't happen. In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter to me, but it might make for an interesting read.

Nick Prigge said...

Yes, we can definitely agree on Spencer. And the "None of that!" line! Oh man! That's what stuck out so much to me about her, the way she keep level-headed in the face of the unthinkable. I can only imagine that in so many pockets of the world that is a very necessary trait.

Here's one of the articles chronicling the accuracy: