Monday, January 13, 2014

Ryan Coogler's FRUITVALE STATION views the color-skewed level of policing in Oakland, Calif.

I know a number of film fans who wouldn't get near FRUITVALE STATION due to its theme of inbred, ingrained racial violence. These are also, and for the most part, people who won't see 12 Years a Slave for the same reason. (Both films are based on real-life tales, though the two films take place more than a century-and-a-half apart.) This is a shame, in both the lighter and darker meanings of that word, but what can you expect from a country steeped from its beginnings in gross injustice, a large portion of whose current citizens even now think that it's A-OK to use racial profiling -- aka Stop-and-Frisk -- to round up possible criminals.

Fruitvale Station, written and directed by first-time/full-length film-maker Ryan Coogler (shown at left), is nowhere near as an accomplished piece of film-making as is 12 Years a Slave. Nor would most of us expect it to be, considering that it has been made by a young man just begin-ning his career, and trying, I would guess, not to fall into the easy traps that a subject like this one holds out. If you followed, as many of us did, this case of young Oscar Grant III, who was shot while unarmed and shackled, inside the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California, by a police officer on New Year's Day early morning, 2009, you'll realize how true to what happened inside that station is the depiction shown by the film. (The event was captured on the cell phone cameras of many of the riders on that BART train in that early morning, and so record after record exists of what happened.)

Mr Coogler captures the event -- his film begins with it and then immediately flashes back to the day before -- quite well, and then he, from what I can gather, has imagined the life of this relatively good, if troubled, young man, filling in a number of blanks about character, situation and motivation. In the run-up to the shooting, he allows us to see, without undue pushing, how differently whites and minorities respond to any problem that brings the police on the scene. This speaks volumes without ever raising its voice.

The result is a pretty good movie in all respects. Lead actor Michael B. Jordan (above, from Friday Night Lights and The Wire) makes our boy a smart mover looking out for his best shot and something of a ladies man who's still trying to keep faithful to his wife (Melonie Diaz, shown in the penultimate photo), and responsible to and for his little daughter (Ariana Neal, shown in photo, bottom). Jordan does an excellent job of making Oscar real, alternately angry and intelligent, a little confused but basically on that difficult road to responsibility. It's a fine performance, and it is backed up by a number of other good ones from the remainder of the cast (the always exceptional Octavia Spencer, below, plays his mom).

What keeps this good film from reaching any level of greatness is the fairly prosaic quality of the writing and direction. In both cases, these get the job done, but only occasionally do they rise to a high level. The movie's two best scenes are perhaps its most disposal ones, too -- yet both are quite lovely and real.

One takes place in the supermarket where Oscar had worked and to which he returns to try to convince his old boss to give him back the job. While there, he gets involved with a young woman trying to prepare a New Year's Eve dinner and calls his grandmother on the phone for some help. Watching the scene we have conflicting feelings. Will Oscar hook up with this girl or simply do her a big favor?

Later, as Oscar, his woman and their friends are out for New Year Eve, the ladies need to find a bathroom. How they do, how Oscar fits into all this, and how he interacts with another man whose pregnant wife needs to pee, proves a marvel of meshing various needs into actions, holding out new hope for this new year. The fact that we know it must come to naught doesn't prevent us from understanding that hope remains. Just not here, and not for Oscar.

Fruitvale Station -- running just 85 minutes and distributed theatrically by The Weinstein Company, appears on DVD and Blu-ray via Anchor Bay Entertainment -- hits the street this Tuesday, January 14, for purchase or rental.

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