Directed by Ryan Coogler. 90 mins.
Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)
I remember precisely where I was at 2:00am on Thursday, January 1, 2009. My roommates and I were hosting a large party at our South Berkeley house, and everyone (but a few passed out folk) was having a great time. Aside from failing to hook up with one of my roommates and being unable to attend that night’s Butthole Surfers / Negativland show across the Bay, I had nary a care in the world.
About eight miles away, a man not much older than me was drowning in his own blood as it flowed into his lungs.
Fruitvale Station is one of the better biopics I’ve seen lately. Unlike recent entries in the genre such as Milk and The Iron Lady, Fruitvale Station takes place over a single day’s time. The film takes a cue from Milk in that it begins with real footage of Grant’s killing, thereby acknowledging the grim way in which most viewers will know the story ends. The set-up also provides the film with a tone of a powder keg ready to blow, not unlike Do the Right Thing or La Haine.
By getting Grant’s death out of the way, the film gets to focus on his life, and that was a critical creative decision on the part of first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler. A film about Grant’s death and the aftermath would have been sentimental and boring. After all, Grant never had plans to be a hero, a martyr, or a symbol. His conflicts include figuring out how to pay the month’s rent and trying to get a job at a Whole Foods. If you added up the anguish of all Americans dealing with these same problems each day, I have a hunch it would outweigh the pain caused by gun deaths.
I’m not too keen on the above paragraph. I convey my point reasonably well, but it reads like a political stump speech. Oh well, moving on.
Coogler’s script and the Michael B. Jordan’s (you may know him as the kid who got electrocuted in last year’s Chronicle) excellent performance paint Grant as an imperfect guy who has finally committed to growing up and being there for his family. He’s no saint – the first dialogue he has with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, Be Kind Rewind) is an argument about him sleeping around. I found Grant to be an overall likeable dude, but the film doesn’t demand that you love him or excuse his past transgressions. Judge his checkered past if you want, but I think it’s a non-issue. Everyone deserves a chance to better him or herself, and no one deserves Grant’s fate.
Plus, squeaky-clean protagonists are boring as shit.
The movie is surprisingly non-angry. It doesn’t evade questions of race, privilege and authority – I doubt anyone truly thinks Grant would be dead if he were white – but Coogler isn’t trying to make a protest piece. Instead of making a film cursing death, he made one that celebrates life and its precious moments.
The film ends with footage of an Oscar Grant memorial rally. Coogler knows that the legacy of Oscar Grant will live on with or without Fruitvale Station. Here’s hoping that the 27 year-old director eventually carves out a legacy of his own.
Aside: I like how the white man who dispenses sage advice to Grant in San Francisco fills the role conventionally reserved for the “magical Negro.”
Aside: It’s a bummer that even if Michael B. Jordan makes it to the A-list, he’ll never be credited as just, “Michael Jordan.”
(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-17)