The powers that be – Fruitvale Station review

Fruitvale Station

By Simon Miraudo
November 5, 2013

Spike Lee’s incendiary Do The Right Thing left its indelible mark on the cinematic landscape in 1989, eerily predicting the L.A. riots of 1992. Nearly twenty-five years later, Fruitvale Station asks if the status quo in America has changed all that much. Taking place over a single day, it relays the events leading up to the shooting of young Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) by a trigger-happy transit officer. Thanks to tender direction from first-time feature filmmaker Ryan Coogler, as well as a magnetic and complex performance from ascendant star-in-the-making Jordan, Fruitvale Station is a fine tribute to a young man taken too soon. When it reaches that harrowing, inevitable finale, it inspires fury and confusion much like Lee’s signature work did two decades ago.

But this movie is much more elegiac than Lee’s. The dynamic Do the Right Thing favoured Rosie Perez slam-dancing to Public Enemy – and, of course, the inescapable summer heat  – to convey simmering tensions. Coogler instead stalks Oscar on December 31st, 2008, in an almost ethereal manner, allowing him to conduct his menial tasks and attempt to put his fractured life back together, even though we, the audience, know its for naught. (Fruitvale opens with real camera-phone footage from that fateful New Year’s morning.) In trouble with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), he flirts to get back in her good graces. He takes his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to school, stops by the deli counter to pick up food for his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), and asks his boss for his job back. The temptation, and perhaps financial necessity, for Oscar to return to his criminal ways is overwhelming. Overcoming that will be his life’s mission. The tragedy is that his life is hours away from ending.

Fruitvale Station

Coogler never lulls us into thinking that Oscar was saint-like, brandishing his blemishes and charms in equal measures. He was an ex-con, a drug-dealer, and an occasional philanderer with a short fuse. Coogler does not shy away from the foibles of his hero, and keeps from painting him as a martyr above any and all judgment. But there are elements of this tale that are undeniable, and, in what makes this a truly modern story, provable, thanks to the omnipresent camera-phones that captured the gunshots on video. We see, in just twenty-four condensed hours of his life, how years of prejudice could lead to Oscar eventually baiting a transit officer. I’m sure a similar film could be made detailing the circumstances preceding that same cop’s grave offence.

There is no good excuse for Oscar’s murder by those officers. It was a shocking, random killing, and yet it wasn’t. Unexpected, yes. But not unprecedented. Reasonable people feel the world should be reasonable too, and it just isn’t. There is a black president in the White House, and yet, racial politics seem to have been equally challenged as they are strengthened by Barack Obama’s election. It’s no accident that his ‘Hope’ campaign stickers can be spotted throughout the flick; a somewhat ironic presence. Oscar Grant isn’t even the most recent, infuriating case of a young life taken on account of stereotyping, with the late Trayvon Martin becoming the latest unfortunate figurehead of what shouldn’t really have to be a cause in this day and age.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station’s early, seemingly aimless sequences are lovely and lived-in, and afford Grant a legacy greater than simply that of a victim. The moving Spencer and Diaz anchor the final act, in which Jordan is tragically absent, and evoked tears from this viewer without ever manipulating us or denigrating their subjects.

There’s an argument to be made that what followed – the court case, the social outcry, and yes, even Trayvon Martin’s trial – would make for more compelling material than a man conducting his daily business before unwittingly wandering into oblivion. That other picture should be made. I’m glad this one exists too.

We can’t expect the world to change in just twenty-five years. I’m just thankful there are still artists who will pay tribute to those whose tales are so rarely told, and incrementally push society towards tolerance.  If only the other, countless fallen souls could be given as fitting a farewell as Oscar Grant is given in Fruitvale Station.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

Fruitvale Station arrives in Australian cinemas November 7, 2013.

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