EXPECTATIONS: I was shocked to learn that the Oscar Grant case is not incredibly well-known. Living on the West Coast four years ago, I was inundated with updates on this story as it developed. Apparently, this news story never left the Pacific Standard Time Zone, so it's interesting to me how many people will have no idea what this film is actually about going in. The plot descriptions aren't doing us any favors, either. They all say something like "On the last day of 2008, Oscar Grant contemplates his life and plans for his future." To be fair to the audience, they should really add something to the end of that sentence like "... before he is brutally murdered by an aggressive cop while lying face down on the ground of a train station." That would let you know what you were in for. That would be a helpful spoiler.
REALITY: A few years ago, Robert Pattinson starred in the film Remember Me, which to this day has one of the most random and bizarre endings I've ever seen. In the last five minutes of that film, Pattinson's character has all of his plotlines resolved, and everything is settled, and he heads off to work... In the World Trade Center, on September 11th, 2001. Since Remember Me chose to make itself 9/11 Out of Freakin' Nowhere: The Movie, that last minute is all anyone remembers of it. Upon rewatch, it feels like the whole film is building to the towers, although it has literally nothing to do with the rest of the plot. This is what a lot of Fruitvale Station feels like, a separate story completely removed from the tragic event which serves as its punctuation. Fruitvale, however, is forced to be honest, as it is based on an actual person, and it starts with the footage of the real-life event. As a result, the entirety of the film is undercut with tension and dread, using the same methodology as Remember Me, but not feeling anywhere near as cheap.
"Once upon a time, a few hours from now, there was a racist cop..."
Oscar Grant was shot and killed by police officer Johannes Mehserle while Grant was handcuffed on the ground at Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California, on New Year's Day, 2009. That is the truth, and it is the catalyst of our plotline. Fruitvale Station, however, takes us through the events of Oscar's day leading up to it, and does so fully utilizing the charm and talent of Michael B. Jordan. Jordan spends a lot of the day getting ready for a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer) and arguing with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz). Honestly, if you remove the fact that this day is the last day of Oscar's life, it's not actually an interesting day at all. Which is exactly the point.
First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler clearly has a lot of talent and imagination to showcase, but most impressively, he understands the dramatic potential in the mundane. Lighting up the side of the shot with cell phone screens, he manages to make on-screen texting look interesting and natural without being distracting. After we've seen Oscar text a few times, it seems so common that your heart sinks as you watch him type out "Let's ride the BART into the city." An unnoteworthy decision delivered in an extremely typical fashion causes a heavy blow to a now-aware audience.
Furthermore, it struck me how well Coogler understands the character of his home town, the often-overlooked city of Oakland. Just like Scorsese's New York, Affleck's Boston and David Ayer's L.A., Coogler makes the North Bay's natural attitude a part of his story. Oscar spends most of his time driving around, planning drug deals in places that feel right for drug deals, living in a perfectly small house in a perfectly distraught neighborhood. It feels like Oakland is a town that has stories no one wants to tell, and if any city has a right to attitude, it's Oakland. Living in the shadow of neighboring San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the country, Oakland is best known for some of the worst problems that plague the U.S.: drugs, gangs, poverty, and Raiders fans. This is a city that needs a Scorsese, and I am okay with Coogler being it.
"WHY ARE YOU RESISTING ARREST?!"The most impressive decision I saw in this film, though, was a brilliant bit of casting and playing with the public persona of one of my favorite character actors, Kevin Durand. Let's get right to the point: Kevin Durand looks like an asshole. Everyone is aware of this; that's why he plays the bad guy so often. He's also very good at it. Utilizing this, when Durand shows up and places Oscar and his friends under arrest, the film makes it seem very much like he's going to be the one to shoot Oscar. He uses excessive force, taunts the group, and generally acts like a dick, but spoiler alert: He's not the one that pulls the trigger. In fact, he's the one comforting Oscar as he lies on the ground, bleeding. The actual executioner is played by well-known pretty-boy Chad Michael Murray, who stays relegated to the background until his part is ready. Cogler's playing with the natural prejudices and perceptions the audience carries with them from seeing actors in previous roles. Even if you've never seen Kevin Durand before, there's still the fact that he's a physically imposing man who isn't afraid to "ugly up" for a role, whereas Murray is a soft, innocent-looking teen heartthrob. Outward appearances carry with them perceptions.
This is the kind of film that is impossible to remove from real-life events. Even if you weren't familiar with the original subject, comparisons to Trayvon Martin are obvious and expected. I certainly felt an emotional reaction from the film; I left feeling angry. However, I'm not sure if this was anger from the film and characters, or a remembered anger I felt four years ago. I'm also not sure that it matters. Cooley seeks to humanize the real-life Oscar by making movie-Oscar a fully realized character. Most of the movie is about Oscar trying to be a good person. He has a temper and an over-inflated sense of pride that causes him to make bad decisions. He sells weed, but wants to stop. He tries to be a good father. Oscar is a realistic character, and much of our affection for him comes from Michael B. Jordan's stellar performance and natural charisma. However, he exists in this weird section of character where the entire purpose of the film is that nothing he does during his screentime matters.
The message of this movie is that the way Oscar Grant spent his day is irrelevant. It doesn't matter that he cheats on his girlfriend, it doesn't matter whether he sells weed or dumps it in the ocean, it doesn't even matter whether or not he is a good father. None of these are relevant when he is handcuffed on the ground at the end of the movie, and none of them are reasons why a person deserves to die. Similarly, and this is something your racist aunt on Facebook doesn't understand, a seventeen-year old boy does not deserve to be shot by a stranger because he was suspended from school, or because he bought a drink which maybe-possibly-haha-not-really could be theoretically mixed with cough syrup to get a buzz. The way Trayvon Martin and both the real-life and fictional Oscar Grants lived their lives is completely irrelevant to the ways they died, and any attempts to discredit them or tear down their character after the fact shamefully ignore this. This is the, perhaps unintentional, moral of Fruitvale Station, and it is a good one. However, it's nearly impossible to accurately judge a film which goes out of its way to tell you that 95% of what you're watching is completely meaningless.
|Reminders of Other Human Beings||9/10|
|Relevance of What You Are Watching||3/10|
|Not Being About 9/11||10/10|
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