* (1 star)
wd – Ryan Coogler
ph – Rachel Morrison
pd – Hannah Beachler
m – Ludwig Goransson
ed – Claudia Castello, Michael P. Shawver
cos – Aggie Guerard Rodgers
p – Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O’Reilly, Chad Michael Murray, Kevin Durand, Marjorie Shears
On January 1st, 2009, at 2:11am, Oscar Grant III was fatally shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. Replying to reports of a conflict on a packed Bay Area Rapid Transit train returning from San Francisco, BART Police officers detained Grant and several other passengers on the platform at the Fruitvale BART Station. Grant was unarmed. Officer Mehserle claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser. Several eyewitnesses filmed the event on their phones and the videos went viral, causing an uproar of protest and dispute that still continues to this day.
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is a film that attempts to apply context and cogitation to this disgusting, hideous event and, regrettably, fails. It fails simply because of that reason; it is a film that gives no insight whatsoever into Grant’s murder and the film we are left with exists in the cloudy stratosphere of ecstasized affectation.
The film is told to us in fictional-construct: It opens with video footage of the real shooting and then rewinds 24 hours. We follow Oscar himself, played by Michael B. Jordan, go about his day, interacting with his girlfriend, mother, daughter and other family members and friends (and some enemies). All of this – with the exception of one flashback to two years earlier – is leading up to the impending tragedy to come.
This story is a burning one. It is patent that people are discriminated because of the colour of their skin and the circumstances of their life and that is a story worth telling. But every choice that Mr Coogler makes actually denies this event from having an ampler power. One wonders whether a documentary on the subject wouldn’t have been a greater asset to be served with.
Mr Coogler brings to the film almost all the risible tropes we’ve come to expect from an independent film like this. His camera follows Mr Jordan around as he encounters the most obvious postulations imaginable. Like the Dardenne Brothers, but with an agenda. These include a dog being run-over by a car, a slow-motion racing game with his daughter, a chance meeting with a pregnant couple and a horrifically trite conversation with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer, where she convinces him to take the train from Fruitvale that night. Once we reach the train, Mr Coogler begins to borrow from Spike Lee and has all his characters reappear in a gallery of clumsiness. There’s nothing clumsy about that symbol per se, but the film doesn’t seem to realise it’s own ridiculousness, not because it’s too self-serious – in fact there are many warm and humorous moments – but because Mr Coogler doesn’t devote any time toward it’s context.
It is after this when we see the shooting recreated and it could not be more slipshod. We are given no real rationalisation from the police officer’s perspective (who is, for some reason, played by Chad Michael Murray) and Mr Coogler constantly cuts back to Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, who is waiting outside the station, wondering what’s going on. We are shown, in succession, the phone calls between Oscar and Sophina, the phone calls she made to Oscar’s mother in a panicky temper and the various onlookers on the train filming with their phones. This was all, according to reports, very close to what exactly happened, but it doesn’t justify its existence in this film. It is hysteria for hysteria’s sake.
Again, this would have been expulsive had the film been consistent with itself, but this sequence seems to betray the 70 or so minutes we have spent getting under Oscar’s skin, understanding his predicaments and contemplating how so many are often in the same situations. But it is in the final 15 minutes where the film loses all thematic value altogether. Oscar is taken to hospital and his condition is critical. Mrs Grant and the rest of the family await the news in the waiting room, as they pray for Oscar’s recovery.
There is no reason for this sequence. Since we already know the outcome, it is an exercise in perversion. It is quite astonishing how Mr Coogler, clearly working with the best of intentions, could take his film toward such arty rot and all it does is distance the audience even further from what the film is trying to be about. If the film is a fictional-construct of the last day in a life, then what is the purpose of the last 15 minutes? Furthermore, if we as an audience are assumed to reach emotional purification during this time, then why show the video footage at the beginning, which only negates any kind of catharsis because we’ve already had it?
This is Mr Coogler’s first film and these are all basically “first-film” problems. What Mr Coogler does accomplish is coaxing some fine work from his cast: Mr Jordan, Ms Diaz and Ms Spencer are all quite wonderful and are not once caught over-doing the despondency they are asked to convey. It is a shame though that they are playing concepts as opposed to characters. In the end, Fruitvale Station ends up being a con for the audience to devour and for awards to be showered, much like Beasts of the Southern Wild last year (a con if ever there was one). Many have praised the film since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. But all I can see is a movie trying to have its cake and eat it too.