Review: Fruitvale Station

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As the U.S. has a national conversation about the never-ending racial problems in the country–notably, that young black men continue to be seen largely as suspects by some–Fruitvale Station is as timely as it is gripping. It chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was shot in the back and killed while in police custody.

Set in Oakland, California, the film has spurred controversy. This article from Forbes points out the factual problems with the film, but after reading it, I’m okay with what the film added and left out. The scene with the dog is artistically clunky, a heavy-handed metaphor, but films about real-life events add this kind of stuff all the time.

I disagree that the film, written and directed by first-timer Ryan Coogler, tries to paint Grant as some kind of heroic figure. In fact, I think the film goes the other way, and paints him warts and all. As played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan, Grant is an ex-con who is extremely immature, getting fired from his job at a supermarket for serial tardiness. He maintains a fiction that he still has the job to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), whom he is in hot water with because of an affair. He’s hot tempered, but also basically a good guy–he treats his daughter well, and helps out a (white) customer at the supermarket who need information on how to fry fish Southern style. Arguing about the facts of his life miss the essential point: no matter what kind of person he was, he didn’t deserve to be murdered.

Grant, along with his girlfriend and some friends, went into San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. According to the film, he had a run-in with a white man he knew in prison on a BART train. The train is stopped and police arrive, who proceed to pull every black man they can find off the train (no white people are pulled off). During the ensuing confrontation, Grant protested his innocence, and ended up put down on the platform, face down. An officer, saying he was going to for his Taser, accidentally pulled his gun instead, and shot Grant.

So, was this racially motivated? The film portrays it that way, as one of the cops calls Grant a n*gger, and certainly the fact that the cop was ready to arrest every young black man in sight, even if Grant was involved in the fracas, seems like racial profiling to me.

What the film does say about race is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Forbes writer cites a scene in which an impromptu dance party breaks out the on BART train–it apparently never happened. But it’s a great scene, and shows the strengths of multiracial togetherness. Until the cop, played by Kevin Durand, who seems to always play heavies, shows up, there isn’t a hint of racial discord in the entire film. Coogley seems to be saying that we can all get along, but people with guns keep interfering.

The film kind of meanders along for the first hour, being good without being special, but the last half hour is absorbing and left me in tears. I defy anyone to watch the hospital vigil for Grant (including Octavia Spencer as his mother) and not be moved. The coda, relating what happened after Grant’s death, seems to annoy the Forbes writer; it may provoke other reactions in some.

The acting is first-rate. Jordan is great, and while Spencer will probably be among the favorites for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I hope that Diaz will be recognized. Her performance as the long-suffering girlfriend of Grant, who also loves him and sees the best in him, is poignant.

My grade for Fruitvale Station: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

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