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Indie Snapshot: Fruitvale Station

by Ethan Alter July 12, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Fruitvale Station</i>

The facts are these: just after midnight on January 1, 2009, a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant and several of his friends were detained by transit police offices while taking a BART train home from San Francisco to Oakland under suspicion of having participated in a fight aboard the train. While passengers looked on -- many filming the ensuing events with their cell phone cameras -- the suspects and the authorities traded heated words and eventually Grant was held down by two cops, one of whom drew his gun and shot him in the back. (During the ensuing trail, the officer claimed he confused his gun for his Taser.) Taken to a nearby hospital, Grant died of his wounds several hours later. Ryan Coogler's much-lauded Sundance favorite Fruitvale Station (named after the station where the shooting occurred) opens with actual cell phone-shot footage of this tragic incident, before rewinding time to the morning of New Year's Eve and dramatizing the hours leading up to Grant's fateful train ride in a noble effort to contextualize the life of a man who would become famous for the way that he died.

Of course, when you move away from stark, fly-on-the-wall footage of actual events to professionally written and performed dramatizations, you're surrendering your claims to 100 percent factual accuracy. Since Fruitvale Station was made with the full cooperation of Grant's friends and family, I'm sure that many of the scenes we see take place during the course of this account of his last day on earth are rooted in reality. At the same time, though, the film's events are being sculpted and shaped to enhance the tragedy of his death, to make the audience really feel and understand the enormity of that loss. How heavily you feel the director's hand on your shoulder will in large part determine your reaction to the overall film. Some viewers may come away thinking that Coogler pushes the sympathy button too hard, while others will be too overwhelmed to care.

From my own standpoint, I don't feel that the movie is engaging in mere hagiography, although it is hindered by a certain stiffness at times. As written by Coogler and performed by talented Friday Night Lights ensemble player Michael B. Jordan in a very strong star turn, Oscar emerges a deeply conflicted man who recognizes his aimless life has to change, but seems prone to taking two steps back for every step he takes forward. With several jailhouse stints and minor drug deals in his past, he's currently trying to live life on the straight and narrow in an effort to be the son his Mom (Octavia Spencer) wants him to be and the partner and father his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) -- whom he's stepped out on in the past -- and their daughter (Ariana Neal) need.

It's easy to root for Oscar, it really is; he's confident and charismatic, with a great smile and an easy way of being. But he's also got an inconsistent sense of responsibility, coupled with a temper that can run white-hot at inopportune times. And as the movie subtly depicts, he also happens to live in a city that doesn't present him with easy opportunities to better himself and, furthermore, doesn't necessarily expect him to better himself. His Oakland neighborhood is a place dominated by minimum wage jobs and families just getting by on limited resources. Though not as provocative and deliberately inflammatory in its social commentary as Spike Lee's seminal Do the Right Thing, Fruitvale Station still depicts an America in which unspoken racial barriers very much exist and while Oscar occasionally breaches them during the course of the movie -- carrying on a pair of pleasantly ordinary conversations with two separate white characters -- even those encounters carry a low-simmering tension, with both sides waiting for each to revert to traditional stereotypes, the Black Hoodlum and the Nervous White Guy

A black hoodlum is certainly all those police officers see when they haul Oscar out of the train at Fruitvale and that's one of the reasons why he can't entirely keep his temper in check, escalating an already fraught situation that's not being especially well-handled by the supposed authorities. The staging of this sequence, which carefully replicates the action seen in the multiple cell phone videos that are still viewable online, is gripping stuff and its aftermath -- with Oscar's mother and his family sitting in the hospital room awaiting word of his fate -- intensely emotional. (Although it carries a faint whiff of "Oscar Clip," Spencer acts the hell out of her final scene.) I'm not sure that Fruitvale Station succeeds at painting a wholly factual portrait of who the Oscar Grant seen in that cell phone footage was, but it does allow you to feel the full weight of his needless death amongst the people that knew and loved him.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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