Wednesday, January 15, 2014

At "Fruitvale Station"

I was living in Oakland at the time the events depicted in this movie took place, but I wasn't living in the same Oakland as Oscar Grant was. Sure, I had a pretty up-close look at the aftermath of some of the rioting downtown in 2009, but it hardly made any impact on me. I commuted across the bay to San Francisco every work day and spent most of my time there. On the weekends I did my shopping in Chinatown and the more affluent areas around Lake Merrit. I was on the BART train nearly every day, but I certainly never had the same experience as a rider that Oscar Grant did.

Grant was African-American. He was from a lower-income background, had a record, and seemed to be a guy who everything was stacked against from the start. If he looked and talked like me, there's no question that he wouldn't have been singled out by the BART police in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. And he wouldn't have become the victim of one of the most awful instances of police misconduct in recent memory. "Fruitvale Station" dramatizes the last day of Oscar's life, where we get to see the version of Oakland that he knew and experienced, leading up to that last ride on the BART train.

It would have been easy for filmmaker Ryan Coogler to idealize his protagonist and blame society for all his woes, and the screen version of Oscar has been called out for being too good to be true for some critics' tastes. However, I found Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, a nicely humanized mixture of good and bad impulses. He's recently out of jail and trying to get his life back in order, spending time with a girlfriend, Sophina (Melanie Diaz), his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). A big portion of his last day is taken up with running errands for a birthday dinner for his mother, Wanda (Octavia B. Spencer). Oscar has a lot of potential, but he's also got an aggressive, angry streak. No one needs to explain that he brings a lot of the pain upon himself.

I also liked the portrayal of Oakland, which tends to get a bad rap in the Bay Area. It certainly has its problems, but in "Fruitvale" it's not the poverty-stricken, violence-plagued ghetto that it's often portrayed as. Instead, it's a realistic mix of people from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds across the spectrum. More importantly, none of the people Oscar meets comes across as anything other than an individual, even the police officers. There's a scene where he's in a grocery store, trying to reason with a former employer who fired him. The boss is reasonable, stays calm, and is entirely polite and sympathetic while Oscar is the one who loses his temper and comes off looking like a troublemaker.

Where the film runs into trouble is that the sequence of events feels entirely too contrived. There are too many chance meetings, too many coincidences, and too many points where you can tell that the filmmakers are trying to convey a point subtly, but end up hitting you over the head with a piece of symbolism or a line of dialogue. Frankly, too much happens to Oscar, requiring him to demonstrate multiple sides of himself in a way that is far too calculated. This is Coogler's first film, so some of these bumps are not unexpected, but because of his inexperience he does occasionally lose the nice sense of verisimilitude that sets this film apart from the more typical, polished studio issue films like "The Butler."

Fortunately the performances are good enough to carry the weaker material, and get us to the intense finale, where the shooting of Oscar Grant is recreated. We see events largely from the point of view of Sophina and Wanda, and it's here that Octavia Spencer really gets her chance to shine. I think I would have preferred the film if it had dropped the earlier sections of the story with Oscar making his rounds in the East Bay and focused solely on the shooting and aftermath, because there's more than enough going on in these sequences to sustain a full film.

But then we wouldn't have that great performance from Michael B. Jordan. And we wouldn't have some genuinely moving moments that help to set up that memorable finale. Ultimately, getting know Oscar Grant and the city of Oakland makes an impact, makes the shooting feel more real and immediate. I had some of the necessary context going into the film, but not all of it, and most viewers wouldn't be familiar with the community at all. So I'm glad the filmmakers took the approach that they did, and "Frutivale Station" was about more than just a shooting.

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