Monday, July 29, 2013

Fruitvale Station

By Ryan Coogler

                Fruitvale Station opens with actual footage taken by a nearby witness of Oscar Grant’s shooting on New Year’s night of 2009. As a result, the film is marked by a pervasive sense of dread. We know where it is going, and due to the raw and upsetting nature of the video, that moment never leaves the forefront of our minds. Yet, while this prologue effectively provides viewers with the needed context and mindset to process the film, there is also a feeling throughout that debut feature director Ryan Coogler’s script is overly fixated on this tragic incident. Such a narrative preoccupation hampers our perception of Grant, for it is impossible to shake the sense that the film is primarily concerned with doing all it can to optimize the emotional impact of the event.
                This cheapens the film and makes it feel manufactured, a particular cinematic sin that ironically characterizes many films based on real events. This is a problem because the film is first and foremost a character study exploring the attempts of Grant to mend a life impacted by the allure of fast money. As such, the film’s persistence in reminding us of its upcoming tragedy distracts us from what is an otherwise interesting portrait of a struggling, but mostly good-hearted young man and his loving family. Yet, rather than delve into the effects of his internal conflict and frustration, the film uses his problems and resulting resolutions as hurried footnotes to anticipate its tragedy. We never fully understand, for example, what compels Grant to turn from his ways. While the film hints it is his family, this is presented as a matter of fact rather than mined for any depth, and to be honest, feels a bit too simple. It is a shame, because I think the tragedy of Oscar Grant’s death could have been far more impactful if the film portrayed Grant as someone with the complexity he was sure to have in reality.

*** out of ****

                Race is the topic of the day these days, and it is unfortunately a topic that trends toward dividing lines and vitriol. The timing of the film, coupled with recent news events, makes it tempting to draw parallels and make this film into a “race issue film.” However, Fruitvale Station avoids this label by markedly portraying Oscar Grant as somewhat of an everyman, downplaying his race so that it is just one piece of who he was; not the defining aspect of his character. This, I think, is admirable. By making Oscar Grant multi-faceted and creating a slice-of-life drama, Coogler has allowed the story of his film to penetrate the hearts of its audiences, not so much with pity from a distance, but with horror and empathy only closeness can provide.
Octavia Spencer as Wanda, the level-headed mother. 
                Fruitvale Station is not a “great” film, but it is a very good one. Although it has some flaws – most notably the underlining foreshadowing and on-the-nose dialogue that feels less than genuine, it nonetheless manages to be affecting. Each of the main actors is well cast, and Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer give particularly notable performances as Oscar Grant and his mother. It’s not groundbreaking cinema, but it is an important story that is nevertheless skillfully told.

A strong *** out of ****

                While this is certainly an engaging narrative, Coogler’s whole approach feels somewhat misplaced in the story of Oscar Grant because of the inherent socio-political meaning his death carries. The more I think about it, the more I am uncomfortable with the idea of Grant’s tragic death being used in the tear-jerking way Coogler uses it. While I agree it provides empathy for Grant’s plight, its climactic moments and its subsequent politicism feel misaligned with the rest of its story, which has little to do with race relations. In other words, the fact of Oscar Grant’s death and the resulting outcry for justice along racial lines seem to have little to do with this film, which instead uses his death as a means to increase the emotional impact of its narrative. The film is a simple tragedy, but the tragedy of Oscar Grant in reality is farther reaching. I couldn’t help but think Grant’s death would be better handled in a thoughtful documentary about its aftermath, and that this film’s story would have been better if it did not conclude with a real, widely known incident. While its focus on the end of Grant's story is necessary due to it being the reason this story came to light to begin with, its narrative focus on Grant’s personal resolutions throughout make the film feel somewhat manipulative and, dare I say it, a little exploitative.

Oscar Grant and his daughter Tatiana. 
                I can definitely see what you mean by that. I think it’s difficult, though, because if you want to bring attention to this kind of incident, it needs to be a personal story, not a formal essay. Regardless, it’s hard to know what to do, because I agree that there seems to be a disconnect between Oscar Grant’s last day and the meaning many will read into the film by virtue of it being about Oscar Grant. Perhaps some better and more insightful transitions or more frequently broadening its thematic scope would have helped. I didn’t, however, find it particularly exploitative.

                In the very least, I do not think Coogler had exploitation of his subject in mind - it is simply the task of making a real story, especially such a provocative one, into widely palatable cinematic fare that by nature makes it feel manipulative. One solution would be, I think, to also evenhandedly tell the concurrent story of the cop who shot Grant, but that would be a tricky venture due to the emotions surrounding the case. By doing this, the film could have incorporated larger themes of race relations in America without these elements feeling out of left field. Instead, it took the safe way out.

                I think that would mostly miss the point, because as I see it, Fruitvale isn’t really even about race. In fact, as far as an “issue” film, I think the story lends itself much more to the issue of police brutality and crime as a cycle. I would have loved for the film to have more thoroughly explored its glimpses of cyclical crime as well as police brutality, but it does feel a bit tacked on.
                Perhaps part of the reason this discussion may seem negative (even though we both quite enjoyed the movie), is that we had very high expectations. Having won Sundance, Fruitvale set the bar quite high with its audiences, and it just didn’t quite hit its marks.

                Indeed, our assessment of the film may be marred by the hype it has received. I feel two competing forces fighting against sincerity in my critique of this film. On one level, the overwhelming acclaim the film has received to this point makes me want to look at it with a more microscopic lens than is fair, but on another level, its politically sensitive focus makes me want to be lenient to avoid riling up any of the vitriol you mentioned. In the end, I have to judge the film’s worth, not the worth of its message.
Moments before the tragic incident.
                Doing this was difficult, as I realized that I feel a tendency to assess the film in relation to its real-life inspirations. As it tells a story that implies so much socio-political subtext, I could not divorce what I was seeing from what I knew about the actual shooting of Oscar Grant. While I usually try to treat films as confined texts, this film’s subject carried inherent meaning. If this were a completely fictional story, I would probably have processed it far differently, and a lot of what I see as flaws would not even be on my radar.

                I completely agree that it was difficult to divorce my own personal feelings about the Grant case from my estimation of the film. It is because I found the story so tragic, and the use of police force so over-the-top, that I wanted to overestimate the merits of the film.
Where's Wallace?! 
                Much of this goes back to how the film opens. Let’s talk about the opening real-live footage. The scene was very affecting. I felt similarly after viewing the actual footage here as I did after hearing the sounds of the real 911 call from someone trapped inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 that kicked off Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. However, Coogler didn’t quite follow the thread and the result was a bit more muddled here than in that film. This may just be because Coogler is so inexperienced. There was a lot in this film that suggested that with a bit more time and refinement, he could make some really good films. His coaching of the actors and his honest and nuanced portrayal of characters, for instance, was excellent.

                All things considered, there is definite promise here for Coogler, who as you said handles intimate moments well, but could use a bit more refinement in weaving these moments together. I look forward to seeing what he does in the years to come.

                Let’s not lose sight that stories like this need to be told, and that there was so much good in the way it was told. Telling stories that are so human is the only way to begin building bridges so that we can all begin to speak honestly about heated topics that hit close to home. The nuanced intimacy of this film, though not perfect, was worlds apart from the us vs. them war language used so frequently in media (social and journalism). It’s something I admired, and I, too, look forward to seeing what Coogler does next.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****

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