Skip to main content

What did you do to him?

Fruitvale Station
(2013)

Ryan Coogler’s debut is a laudably intentioned account of the events at Fruitvale BART station on New Year 2009, in which 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally  shot by a police officer while under restraint. The injustice was greeted with quite understandable outrage, leading to protests and rioting. The majority of Rylan Coogler’s film is a low-key affair, however, tracing Oscar’s final fateful day and sketching in his background, family, and pressing concerns. Fruitvale Station really comes into its dramatic own depicting the lead-up to his death (deemed manslaughter by the judge), in which the police’s customary lack of restraint and racist behaviour are shown to be front and centre.


There is perhaps a lurking sense that this Sundance hit is built more as an awareness raising exercise more than a film one with clear sense of narrative. The result is equal part longueur and a sense that the audience is being led by the nose. Part of the interest is that there should be no “fateful” quality to Oscar’s last 24 hours. Things were going right for him, and things were going wrong. It shouldn’t need the attention seeking of glossier final day stories (Carlito’s Way, the last hour of Goodfellas), as the point is surely that this came out of the blue. To that extent, Coogler rather loads the deck in places.


Coogler chose to make the film because he wanted the audience to get to know Oscar, rather than his relevance being another news statistic. But one wonders if the actual video footage of the night seen at the beginning informs may not have been self-defeating. On the positive side it informs the loss, but it also carries a raw power that no dramatisation can begin to capture, to the extent that one wonders whether a documentary approach might have been more effective. The day itself is relatively uneventful, so informing the experience instils gravitas Fruitvale Station might otherwise lack.


Early on, I thought there might be a too-good-to-be-true presentation of Oscar, a loving son who comes to the aid of fish-frying girls in supermarkets (phoning his gran and asking her to give the customer a fish recipe!), so this seemed like a clever piece of misdirection when minutes later Oscar is caught in a heated exchange with his former employer about getting his job back. So too, the loving son making preparations for his mom’s (Octavia Spencer, outstanding) birthday is contrasted with his raging at her in prison a year earlier, when she tells him she will not be visiting him any more.


Yet, compiled against other inventions, this notional balance comes across as overtly manipulative. It’s as if Coogler was worried a more accurate portrayal of Oscar might somehow make what happened to him less condemnable or wrong. There’s the scene where Oscar tends a dying pit bull hit by a car, a rather clumsy metaphor by any standards, and another where he throws away his weed. His girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) later embraces him for his decision to go straight in spite of his having no fall back of a job. In the fiction of this piece, it seems highly unlikely he’d do this with rent due and having promised to help out his sister. Other moments (the impromptu final dance on the delayed train) are less problematic, if no more accurate to the real Oscar’s last day. Still, there is a sense of too much finessing.


The other scene of note in this regard is the coincidence with the supermarket fish girl (Katie, Ahna O’Reilly). She sees and calls to him on the train, which tips an ex-inmate to Oscar’s presence. It hearkens to the fateful twist of a fictional narrative (like The Great Escape’s “Good luck” scene) and distorts events into a classically ironic situation (if Oscar hadn’t helped someone he wouldn’t have died; and look how that same guy set up in a flashback, out to get him, finally does on his last night). On the other hand, the scene where Oscar talks to a guy, while their other halves are let into an establishment to use the bathroom, may be yet another where Oscar is shown to be a jolly decent chap, but it strikes the right balance between reflective and tragic; possibilities ahead, and paths that might have been taken.


Whatever his failings as a screenwriter, Coogler has managed to get the best from his cast. Jordan is such a sensitive actor (as The Wire showed) that he perhaps can’t help but over-emphasise Oscar’s best qualities, but he also embraces his rage. Diaz is similarly excellent as the long-suffering girlfriend. Kevin Durand’s cameo as a thuggish, racist cop is typically strong.


Fruitvale Station received a host of plaudits on release, taking the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Best First Film in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It also attracted additional attention through being released in the same period as the trial of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin shooting. There, the shooter also received the benefit of the doubt. In Oscar’s case it appears one of his friends did indeed confirm the policeman (who served 11 months) said he was intending to tase him.


Reviews such as Forbes’ take the film to task for treading lightly with the truth. While I’m not one for suggesting a fiction film is bound to show fidelity to the facts to be valid, it does make its case less potent here when it is easy to point out subversions or omissions and when – set up as this is with actual footage – most viewers have been led to think this is the unvarnished. But I’d disagree that Coogler simply puts a halo on his protagonist; there’s a running emphasis on a man struggling with anger. More than that, the reviewer undermines his argument with loaded language such as “this low-level criminal did not deserve to have his life taken”.


Jordan is rapidly heading for next big thing status, with roles as Johnny Storm and Apollo Creed’s nipper arriving later this year. Coogler joins him on the latter project, although hopefully that’s not a signal he’ll end up making rather indistinct Hollywood fare (stand up, John Singleton). Fruitvale Station is a decent little film, issues of accuracy aside, bookended with scenes of incredible potency but rather floundering for material in between.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.