Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station ★★★★★

Ryan Coogler, a film school graduate and native of the Bay area, has crafted one of the most powerful and important debut films I've ever experienced. It chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was quick to anger, capable of massive amounts of love and devotion, and treated strangers with kindness and respect. He wasn't just a good person: he was a real person who was a vital part of several peoples' lives. I've seen a lot of tragedies, biopics, and social issue dramas. Some have hit so close to home I could've written them myself. However, before Fruitvale Station, there had never been a film that was able to emotionally devastate me to this degree. I was inconsolable for hours, crying in public and not giving a shit who saw my tear-stained face. Almost two weeks later I still feel Oscar Grant's tragedy weighing heavy on my spirit.

Michael B. Jordan gives an incredibly nuanced and credible performance as a guy earnestly trying to make a better life for himself and the people who depended on him. Oscar was a great dad who made his little girl's life infinitely brighter. He was a boyfriend to a woman he had recently betrayed, but made a sincere effort to rebuild the trust he had lost. He was an unemployed former grocery store worker who made the mistake many young, immature men make - showing up late. He was a drug dealer who understood the very real possibility that if he was caught with drugs on him he would return to prison. He was a son who didn't take his mother's love for granted, thereby taking her advice very seriously. He was a friend to many who loved his laugh, his generosity, and his tardiness. A combination of great writing, natural performances from everyone involved, and chemistry made getting to know Oscar an emotional rollercoaster in the best possible way.

I wouldn't call Fruitvale Station a beautiful film to look at. That being said, from start to finish it is a very immersive experience. The use of handheld super 16 creates an intimacy and immediacy that envelops the viewer in a cramped space with the characters in their most vulnerable, honest moments. Other times, we are thrown into chaos, especially the moment that the audience knows will end in his death. That tension created by seeing the real-life cell phone footage right as the film opens, then seeing who this young man really was and who he interacted with on his last day on earth, then seeing his life slip away … that escalation of drama makes it almost impossible to breathe. There were moments when I actively had to remember to catch my breath because I'd been holding it so long. The empathy pouring out of me for 84 minutes got to a dangerous level. Yes, I'm a highly sensitive person, but this wasn't a case of mere sentimentality or cheap emotional manipulation getting the best of me. I'm very good at spotting that and it makes me angry instead of having the intended emotional effect. This was an 84 minute reminder that some of the people I care about lead very similar lives to Oscar and could be next. As the family on screen grieved for their lost loved one, I experienced the grief I would feel if I lost my little brother or my cousins or my closest black male friends.

Before I saw the film, I had some thoughts on what it would turn out to be. I figured one way was to do an enormous amount of research and get all the little details right, recreating recent history and letting the failure of justice be the focal point. The second was to take the tragic incident and turn it into a rallying cry for change, making Oscar out to be a martyr and turning his killer - and maybe all racists by proxy - into the villain. Even though both of those descriptions of the film are true in some ways, together they don't paint a vivid enough picture. What sets this film apart and what makes it such an important work of art is that it makes getting to know Oscar Grant the point of the film. His tragic death in real life sparked bitter protests about things such as racism, poverty, police brutality, injustice, etc. but you only see a brief series of images of these at the end of the film. Those things are the threads running through this picture for sure, but the film only addresses these issues through Oscar's relationships with those around him, how he related to strangers, and the decisions he made.

There is one scene I want to talk about in depth because it's been the source of heated debate and a dismissiveness I find extremely misguided. I'm talking about the scene in which Oscar is at a gas station and plays with a bulldog while no one is looking. A little while later, as the BART train races by in the background, the dog is hit by a car and Oscar becomes emotional as he holds the dying dog. It's a moment of immense compassion and foreshadows the end of his life, but some critics have deemed this scene unworthy of the rest of the film. They say it's extremely manipulative to use a hurt animal as a way to elicit sympathy from the audience. In a recent interview Ryan Coogler gave to fellow black independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay, he explains why he decided to fill the only gap in the day when Oscar wasn't around other people with something meaningful and true to the character. He goes into detail about how pit bulls are portrayed in the media as aggressive and dangerous animals. However, black people in the Bay area love pit bulls and have a special, instantaneous bond with them. For Oscar to see one on the street and immediately start petting it would be natural. Coogler was also inspired by testimonies of people who knew Oscar as the kind of guy who cried alone. In the moment when he's cradling the dying dog in his arms, Oscar is able to let out all of the bottled sadness and anger he had to hide from his loved ones in order to be strong for them. Coogler was much more concerned with fleshing out the character than pissing off critics who have seen tons of movie moments where an animal is used to instantly and easily elicit sympathy from an audience. I think this scene was thoughtfully done. I connected to it on many levels and I saw the intended parallel between how pit bulls and young black men are perceived as dangerous entities to be avoided given their reputation for violence and danger.

Ryan Coogler tells this story with the passion and insight of someone who has a personal stake in portraying a real human behind what some would instantly label a "thug." He chooses not to harp on the social issues at face value and instead tells the story of individuals who are allowed to make choices based on something other than race and stereotypes. White people who recoil in his presence and put their guard up are allowed to change their mind about Oscar after he shows them kindness. Oscar could've just backed off and let the initial perception of him stand, but he fought back in subtle but powerful ways and was able to move the country forward a tiny bit. If I had the power to make every single American watch just one film this year, I would choose this one. Some might call the film emotionally manipulative, but I see films that elicit real empathy from viewers as having the ability to spark change in peoples' hearts and minds.

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