Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Fruitvale Station Movie Review
There has been a change for the better in this country – and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it has happened during the tenure of our first black president – with respect to public knowledge and outrage at the unjust killings of young black men. Trayvon Martin’s death is the one that made huge national news headlines, but unfortunately his death is one among many that occur year after year because someone, usually a while man and often a police officer, mistakes him for a threat. These young men become names in the news and we learn little about who they were outside of the specific circumstances in which they died.
The case of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black man killed by transit police in San Francisco in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, was less prominent than that of Martin, but sparked equal amounts of enmity and distrust among those who knew the story. Fruitvale Station is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s attempt to humanize Oscar and show him as a father, a son, a friend, and a human being rather than a statistic and a stock photo. It is an admirable undertaking for a filmmaker and it’s good news that the film got as much attention as it did.
Still, while I praise it for intent and effect, I also have to evaluate it on a technical and storytelling level. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar – just “Osc” to his friends – as a young man learning to develop confidence in himself while controlling the violent anger within him that contributed to a stint in prison. Jordan has talent. You can see behind his eyes Oscar’s desire to have a normal life, but the pain at how hard he will have to work – mostly against his own flaws – to achieve it. But in writing Oscar as a character, Coogler tries too hard to sell him. In a birthday phone call to his mother (Octavia Spencer) or calling up grandma to help a stranger in a supermarket who doesn’t know how to do a good southern fish fry, Oscar is painted as a portrait of wholesome goodness. He’s no saint, of course, as conversations with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) about his philandering suggest. It seems so perfectly crafted to present a good-to-the-core young man trying to do right while also struggling with some personality issues. It feels deliberately written as such more than it feels like a natural character portrait developed through interviews with Oscar’s real life acquaintances.
By keeping the action to the last day of Oscar’s life, Coogler is able to focus on Oscar’s final moments. We get a condensed version of who he is. It’s a theatrical convention, but for a film that is supposed to fall into realism, or even cinema verite with all the handheld camera movement, it feels artificial. To develop a real sense of who Oscar is, Coogler forces himself into a corner by having so many life-affirming events happen in sequence. There’s a state-of-relationship conversation; the sadness at seeing a dog get hit by a car; an attempt to get a job back; a visit to his young daughter at the park.
There’s a better movie lurking beneath the surface. Jordan’s performance rises above the material he has to work with. While I think it’s a worthy attempt at making Oscar’s story real for a mass audience, I don’t think Coogler needed to try so hard. It reflects the unsure hand of a novice screenwriter.