Film

‘Fruitvale Station’ Is Searing Portrait of a Life Cut Short

Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Made with assurance and deep emotion, “Fruitvale Station” is more than a remarkable directing debut for 26-year-old Ryan Coogler. It’s an outstanding film by any standard.

Featuring a leap-to-stardom performance by Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale’s” demonstration of how effective understated, naturalistic filmmaking is at conveying even the most incendiary reality is as hopeful as the story it tells is despairing.

“Fruitvale” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as the Un Certain Regard Prize of the Future at Cannes, and its story is a true one, a narrative that created national shock waves when it happened.

Early on New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was shot in the back and killed by a transit policeman at the BART system’s Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif. It was an event that went viral as transmitted cellphone videos of the incident sparked outrage and demonstrations.

An Oakland resident studying at the University of Southern California’s film school at the time, Coogler not only identified closely with Grant (“It was kind of like it happened to me, or someone I knew,” he said at Sundance) but he also, as the finished movie demonstrates, understood both the sources of the event’s emotional impact and its implications for the never-ending story of race and power in America.


It’s Coogler’s empathetic talent to be alive to what is happening on-screen, to know how much weight to place on any given moment, and best of all, to understand that the difference between giving things their due (rather than overdoing it) is the key to dramatic impact. A natural storyteller, he has the ability to let narrative simply unfold, to bring us in on the inside of a life even while working under the constraints of a tight budget and a 20-day shooting schedule.

What makes “Fruitvale” so effective is its determination to do justice to all aspects of Grant’s character, to resist the temptation to view him as anything other than the full, flawed human being we see on-screen.

In this, Jordan — memorable as the conflicted young drug dealer Wallace in “The Wire” — is essential. Coogler wrote the role of Grant, Osc to his friends, with the actor in mind. Not only does Jordan have Grant’s distinctive smile but he also, Coogler said at Sundance, can convey the particular combination of “warmth and an edge” that makes us feel we are experiencing the man as he must have been.

The director made the wise decision to start “Fruitvale Station” with those viral phone videos, so we can see both how abrupt and shocking his death was and be under no illusions about how this film is going to end. Far from making the rest of “Fruitvale” anticlimactic, knowing as a viewer what no one on-screen knows grounds this film in an unmistakable way, giving it a sense of tragic inevitability that grows as the minutes tick away.

“Fruitvale Station” begins almost exactly 24 hours before it ends, with an early morning Dec. 31 argument between Oscar and Sophina (a fine Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and the mother of their 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Oscar has been caught cheating, and though his regret and commitment to the relationship seem sincere, Sophina is finding it difficult to trust him and move on.

Oscar has particular plans for this day, and not because it is New Year’s Eve. In fact, though he and Sophina might catch the fireworks in San Francisco, he tells a friend it’s all going to be “nothing major, low key. It’s going to be chill.”

What makes this day special for Oscar is that it’s the birthday of his mother, Wanda (“The Help’s” Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer in an especially strong performance), and he has to pick up the cake and the seafood for Grandma Bonnie’s gumbo that will be the highlight of the family celebration.

As Oscar gets this done, stopping by Joe’s Market, where he used to work, to get the crabs, we get to see his warm side, the helpful way he puts Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), a customer who needs cooking advice, on the phone with Grandma Bonnie. This affection is especially visible in his relationship with his daughter, whom he clearly adores.

But, as the day moves on, we also hear about and see the things that have bedeviled Oscar. Chronic lateness cost him his job at Joe’s, he’s been in prison, and he’s unnervingly quick to anger, a genuine good nature turning to livid fury in an instant.

As much as “Fruitvale Station” makes no attempt to hide these things, it is also insistent that they do not define the man. Oscar’s determination to change, to turn his difficult life around and make it better, could not be more sincere. By the time this terribly moving film is over, the fact that he was not given the chance seems genuinely tragic.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image