Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Review by Pamela Zoslov

In his first feature film, FRUITVALE STATION, Ryan Coogler accomplishes something extraordinary. In dramatizing the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old man shot to death in Oakland, California by a BART transit cop on January 1, 2009, Coogler highlights the humanity of Grant and all victims of senseless violence. Grant was executed while handcuffed and lying face down on the train platform. His murder, like Trayvon Martin's, sparked outrage and protests until the transit officer was arrested and tried for murder. Through the movement, Grant became a symbol, but before he was a symbol, he was a man.

The film's fictionalized account of Oscar Grant's final hours lets us know Oscar Grant, the man. Released on the same day a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of Martin's murder, the film should have especially strong impact.

Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar with supple grace, gliding through a range of emotions as he goes through the last day of 2008, and as it turns out, the last day of his life. It's a day filled with ordinary joys and frustrations. We see him embracing his pretty girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), taking their curly-haired daughter (Ariana Neal) to preschool and picking her up, buying a birthday cake for his mom, talking to his grandmother about frying fish. Oscar has recently been fired from his grocery store job for being late, and his former boss won't hire him back. His mom and girlfriend don't know he's unemployed. He deals a little marijuana, and in flashbacks we see that he served time in San Quentin. In a strong scene, his devoted but stern mom (Octavia Spencer) comes to visit him behind bars,and tells him his bright little daughter, Tatiana, “thinks you love your 'vacations' more than you love her.” Because Grant dotes on his little girl, his anguish is palpable.

In a bit of foreshadowing that's sad, if a little heavy-handed, Oscar befriends a stray dog when he stops for gas, and watches as the dog is struck by a hit-and-run driver.

As the year ends, it seems Oscar is getting his life together. He comes clean about his job situation to Sophina and promises her he'll be faithful (she has recently caught him cheating). The young family goes to Oscar's mom's house for her birthday party, a beautifully staged setting of warm, jovial kitchen conversation as the women crack crabs and cook gumbo. Eager for some New Year's Eve fun, Oscar and Sophina join Oscar's friends on a trip to San Francisco to watch fireworks. There's much jollity on the train as strangers dance and sing together to ring in the new year, but after 2 a.m., on the journey home, trouble starts. Oscar gets involved in a melée that brings out the BART cops. The officers' angry brutality is depicted without evident exaggeration.

Because you know how the story ends — even if you weren't familiar with the Grant case, the film's opening tells you what happened — you view the film with mounting dread. When the moment comes that Oscar Grant's life is snuffed out for no apparent reason, the loss is deeply felt. You see his terrible realization that he's been shot, and the agony of his girlfriend, mother, friends and, ultimately, his little girl. The killing was captured on cell phone video by several onlookers, video that quickly went viral.

Oscar Grant was not just another statistic, another dead African American “perpetrator.” He was a son, grandson, partner, friend, father. He had hopes and dreams. The simple beauty of Coogler's film is that it allows you to walk with Oscar and know that, but for certain privileges you enjoy, it could have been you or someone you love bleeding to death on that platform.

As gun violence and extrajudicial killings by police become increasingly common, many Americans have become numb to the suffering of others. How can they ignore the wrenching grief of a mother whose son was shot for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time? “That's my baby!” cries Oscar Grant's mom, who blames herself for suggesting he take the train. “I wanted him to be safe.”

Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop arrested after tried for the murder of Oscar Grant — he was arrested only after large-scale protests — claimed he mistook his gun for his taser. The jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to two years, and walked free after 11 months.

That's how much the life of Oscar Grant was worth. 4 out of 4 stars.

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