Monday, August 5, 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013) – Review

Review: Fruitvale Station is a strong character drama and appeal for social change. The film is about Oscar Grant, young black man recently released from prison looking to put his life back together and be there for his family (a girl he is hoping to marry and a young daughter). Taking place on New Year’s Eve 2008, the film chronicles Grant’s final day before being accidently gunned down by police during an incident on the BART train from San Francisco to Oakland.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler makes a daring choice to begin Fruitvale Station. As a prologue, he shows the actual real life event as shot by a witness with a cell phone. By doing this, Coogler immediately grabs the audience’s attention and emotionally invests them in the story. The footage is shocking. The decision pays off so well because most incoming viewers are probably unfamiliar with the full extent of the event (having only some peripheral knowledge from the news or maybe nothing more than the film’s trailer). However, the choice is nonetheless daring because in lesser hands it could have undermined all the dramatic build up leading up to the event.

The fact that this is a true story also plays a very impactful dramatic role in the film, and Coogler takes full advantage. Like all great filmmakers, he emotionally manipulates the viewer to feel something, but does so in such a way that the audience does not realize they are being manipulated. Showing the real footage right off puts the audience on edge, and from there Coogler spends most of the first two acts developing Grant, showing his strengths and his faults as a man – but most importantly, Coogler endears him to the audience.

The key scenes in the film are those spent between Grant and his daughter, as they showcase the man as a very loving father and good person at heart. The scene between Grant and Katie (the girl in the supermarket) in which he goes out of his way to help her buy the right ingredients for a fish fry, going as far as to call his grandmother for assistance, also showcases his kindness. Additionally, the scene in which Grant dumps his weed into the Bay (after recalling a very personal moment in prison, and a promise he made to his mother) instead of making a drug deal for some much needed cash expresses that Grant is truly committed to change and being there for his family, above all other considerations (and there are a few other scenes as well – one involving a dog – that attest to the good in him). He is a good person at heart, and wants to change his life. These moments make the film, because these are the moments in which the audience commits fully to him.

Yet, Coogler does not shy away at all from presenting Grant as a fully fleshed out character, capable of good and bad. The audience is shown the anger that Grant carries within himself – anger at his plight, and the seemingly impossibility of overcoming it. This anger is deep rooted, stemming from the almost insurmountable disadvantage that many of America’s poor find themselves at from birth – particularly and historically African-Americans. There is also street culture and the role that it has played in Grant’s life and development. He must be tough and aggressive outwardly to survive. Going back to the supermarket scene, there is a great piece of character juxtaposition. As Grant is helping Katie, he steps away to try and get his job back, even resorting to intimidation when he realizes it is not going to happen. He is from a world in which street life and all that comes with it is really the only viable option when the alternative is a different kind of slave labor (void of hope and opportunity). Coogler does a fantastic job of bringing all these aspects together to create a full picture of who this man was, which makes the tragic accident that befalls him all the more heart wrenching.

With all the character work done, and the audience fully invested emotionally in the character, Coogler depicts the tragic accident in an unflinching and even manner. He does not demonize the police and glorify Grant. He instead lets the events play out for the audience to make their own assessments. What results is not so much that Grant is mistakenly shot by the police when an officer pulls his gun, meaning to pull his Taser, but rather that we still live in a world governed by racial stereotypes, and to think otherwise is naïve. However, it is still a sad truth nonetheless. The police detain Grant and his friends, after being called to the scene in response to a fight that broke out on the train (which did involve Grant and someone he knew from prison). By the time the police show up, the fight is over and everyone is leaving the scene, and yet the police detain them nonetheless specifically targeting Grant and his friends because they are trained to look out for young males that are dressed in a manner representative of gangs (which in Oakland would most likely be young black males) – racial profiling. The police treat Grant and his friends with some hostility because to them (again backed by what they typically see on a day-to-day basis) these men are probably up to no good. This angers Grant and his friends because their rights are being abused, which makes them uncooperative, and the situation escalates until the deadly mistake. Neither side is fully in the wrong, or in the right. It is sadly just another typical call for the police, and just another typical day in the life of many young black men in America.

This is the point Coogler is trying to make, the reason why he spends so much of the film with the character, getting the audience invested. This tragedy is not the fault of either side. It is the system that is broken. Coogler delivers an emotional wallop to hopefully knock the audience out of their indifference. Here is a film about a young black thug (so to speak, looking at Grant from negatively informed racial perspective), and yet outside of his economic restraints he is no different than any of us (the audience cares about Grant and is heartbroken by his death). Grant has a family. He wants what is best for them. He wants a better life for himself and his family – these are the things we all want. And yet, his socioeconomic place in American keeps him from having the chance to ever escape and achieve his aspirations, and ultimately he is just another statistic (a young black man who is gunned down before the age of twenty-five).

Until the system changes and we as a people change our perceptions of what individuals should be allowed to achieve regardless of race, religion, or background, this will just keep happening again and again (recently, a very similar incident happened involving the death of Trayvon Martin). It is not right that we just relegate the lower classes to the urban and rural ghettos and create laws and structures that keep them from ever being able to reach for more. Of course for many their only avenue that makes sense is the economy of the street (which means selling drugs and other criminal activities), and in turn this creates a police force that is conditioned to racial profile in these ghettos. It also creates a specific street culture that then influences how the rest of America views these people. It is a vicious cycle in which few survive or escape (many ending up in prison, dead, or forever impoverished, leaving the next generation even worse off). This is what Coogler wants the viewer to see. The people are not the problem; they are just like us.

Overall, Fruitvale Station is a very effective and affecting character drama that makes a plea to the humanity within all of us, without ever feeling preachy or self-righteous. It is a fine piece of cinema.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Fruitvale Station is a fantastic debut film for writer-director Ryan Coogler. He certainly seems to have a strong command of dramatic pacing and character development. He also garners wonderful performances from his cast. I very much look forward to seeing what he does next.

Ludwig Goransson’s score does a good job reinforcing the dramatic moments of the film, and creating the overall atmosphere and tone (one that is optimistic, but always with a somber hint). The soundtrack is also very good as it brings a local urban sound to the film. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is fantastic as it grounds the film in reality, and presents the action to the audience as if they are really there (which dramatically and emotionally really resonates). She is someone to watch in the future (also doing fine work in Sound of My Voice). Like Morrison’s photography, Hannah Beachler’s production design is also very rooted in creating a realistic look for the film (vital to its dramatic impact).

The cast throughout is brilliant as well. Ahna O’Reilly and Kevin Durand give standout performances in small supporting roles. Octavia Spencer is in many ways the heart of the film. She, like the audience, sees all the good and bad within Grant, and as she is crushed by his death so too is the audience. Melonie Diaz, playing Grant’s girlfriend Sophina, serves a similar role. She wants Grant to be the man she knows he is capable of being. She sees how close he is to becoming that man, only to be devastated by his death. She (like O’Reilly on the train filming the incident) also expresses the audience’s frustration and sense of helplessness when the police detain Grant and his friends. In a different film, the manner by which the police engage Grant would seem normal, and yet because we know him and care about him we are outraged, which is exacerbated by Diaz’s reactions to the events as they happen. Michael B. Jordan gives what is undoubtedly his breakout performance (which surely will see him offered many Hollywood leading roles in the next couple years). He builds a man who is kind and good hearted, and yet in a different moment intimidating and even frightening. It is a marvelous performance. One that should see praise and acknowledgement come awards season.

Summary & score: Fruitvale Station is a brilliant character drama – one that asks America to really look at itself and reassess its values in regards to how we disregard our lower classes, leaving them to toil in an endless struggle of poverty and crime. 8/10

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