Review: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Is Powerful, Sadly Familiar

2 Aug

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationI’ll come right out and say that I not only recommend people go see this film; I really want people to go see it. We were fortunate enough to hear writer/director Ryan Coogler speak a few weeks ago at a Los Angeles Film Festival seminar, and I was deeply impressed.

Ike2I thought you were going to run up on stage and hug him.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationI’m man enough to admit I wanted to. He came across as so genuine, thoughtful, and sincere–

Ike2Not to mention adorably shy–

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationHe’s like the polite, hard-working neighbor’s kid parents secretly wish they could trade their own under-achieving kid for.

Ben1 [Editor’s Note: This is a metaphorical statement. Any resemblance to actual, under-achieving kids of actual parents is purely coincidental.]

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationAnd while it’s become a cliche, since the Zimmerman trial, for urban youth of all races to proclaim, ‘I am Trayvon,’ Ryan grew up not far from where the film’s subject, Oscar Grant, was shot. He knows the neighborhood and its people, and he knows the pain they felt over the incident, because he felt it too, not as an outside observer but as one of them. When he said at the seminar that this is a personal story for him, that he could have been Oscar, it was clear to me he was speaking from the heart.

Ike2Absolutely. But we don’t want people to get the wrong idea. Fruitvale Station isn’t just some heart-on-the-sleeve message movie; it’s way too honest for that.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationIt sure is. Not to harp too much on the 27-year-old filmmaker’s age, but the film has a maturity of execution and viewpoint that is all too rare in today’s movie houses. It’s stylish without being flashy; gritty without being degrading; and it somehow manages to be very warm towards its characters without sugar-coating their flaws.

Ike2For those unfamiliar with the story, Fruitvale Station stars a very engaging Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American who was fatally shot while in the custody of Oakland, CA, transit police early on New Years Day in 2009. The film also stars Octavia Spencer as his mother, and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend and the mother of his young daughter.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe film opens with cell phone footage of the actual shooting, underscoring the sense of inevitability many audience members will likely bring into the theater. The bulk of what follows is a straightforward chronicle of Oscar Grant’s day, meticulously reconstructed from interviews Coogler conducted with family, friends, and eyewitnesses. One of the extraordinary things about this film is the community participation in its creation. Even BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority, whose officers were ultimately held responsible for the shooting, cooperated with the filming.

Ike2The movie really serves as a portrait of Oscar Grant, and he’s so fully realized onscreen as someone that you could imagine as a neighbor, family member, or friend, that–even if somehow you don’t like him–you still have to feel sad and outraged at his senseless death.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationJordan does a great job bringing to life a young man who has a good heart and a winning personality, who wants to turn his life around, but whose immaturity and impatience for forgiveness from those he has hurt often thwart his best intentions.

Ike2I thought a key moment was when his girlfriend learns he lost his job without telling her, because he thought he could go back after a couple of weeks and talk the manager into rehiring him. Pointing out that people don’t rehire people they fire just because you ask, she says he thinks life is  joke.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationOne of the sad things about the film is that, although Oscar knows he has to straighten himself out, it’s clear he has no clue how to set his life on a sustainable course. That’s not so unusual for a twenty-two-year-old, but as the film shows, there is less room for error in life for those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.

Ike2My favorite scene was the flashback to Oscar’s time in jail, when his mother visits him.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThat was tremendous. When Oscar is taunted by a white inmate, the mother watches her loving baby boy transform so fully into a prison-hardened tough that he can’t even hear or see her sitting right in front of him. Even after he sits down and looks at her, Jordan is able to convey with his eyes that his mind is miles away, until it’s as if she suddenly appears out of nowhere and he’s happy to see her again.

Ike2Then it’s even more heart-breaking when the mother tells him she won’t be coming back, and he goes right back to being a little boy, begging for a hug as the guards drag him away.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationIt’s an Oscar-worthy moment for both Jordan and Octavia Spencer. Spencer beautifully conveys the helplessness the mother feels in protecting her child. Even her best advice–to take the BART on New Year’s Eve so Oscar won’t be driving and drinking, only leads to tragedy.

Ike2You hit on it when you mentioned inevitability a moment ago. As you watch the bad choices of Oscar’s life pile up, it’s hard not to see every move he makes as leading him straight to disaster.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationIt’s partly the way the film is constructed, and partly the sad familiarity of the thumbnail sketch of Oscar’s life–unwed father, dealing marijuana, time in jail, cheating on his girlfriend, losing his job. The fully fleshed-out characterization of Oscar takes him well beyond that stereotype, and it shows how the steps he was taking to turn things around were tragically cut short before he had a real chance to follow through on them.

Ike2This is not to imply that Oscar was in any way responsible for his own death.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationNo. In fact, when the showdown occurs, it is Oscar who is trying to calm everyone down. But that moment also shows the dilemma a black male in America too often faces–how one is to react, knowing the danger of talking back to police, yet burning with outrage at being singled out and abused. One thing the film made me think about was my own youthful encounters with the law and how protected I was from the direst consequences of what I said and did because of the color of my skin.

Ike2I’ll bet you were a real hard case.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationFar from it, and the cops knew it. But would they have seen so readily how non-threatening I was if I had been black?

Ike2This would be a great movie to screen in classrooms, because of the discussions it will generate.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationBut with its artistry, humor, and emotional impact, anyone can appreciate Fruitvale Station as a piece of high-level entertainment.

Ike2Go see it.

Our Review:

Mature, honest filmmaking.

Sensitive, well acted portrayals.

Powerful, thought-provoking, and sad.

Five tail-wags out of five.

2 Responses to “Review: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Is Powerful, Sadly Familiar”

  1. CMrok93 August 3, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    A very sad movie that brings up points that are very depressing, but also true. Good review.

    • ikeandmike August 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

      Thanks. It would be interesting for some brave filmmaker to take a similar approach with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident, showing each as an actual human being rather than as two media-hyped caricatures.

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