Judge Michael Nazarewycz is second-guessing public transportation.
Every step brings you closer to the edge.
I had an open written after I watched Fruitvale Station that involved the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the use of eyewitness video footage of that beating and how, sadly, video technology has improved more than race relations in this country in the last 20+ years. But as I tried to write my review, I struggled because something didn't feel right. The film's story is an important one, but there was something about the film itself that felt off—so much so that I watched the film a second time and scrapped everything I had written up to that point.
Facts of the Case
Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station takes place almost exclusively on New Year's Eve (day and night), 2008. The film's main character is Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle), a young black man ready to get a one-day jump on his New Year's resolutions. He wants to stop dealing drugs. He wants to find a new job. He wants to be a better father to his little girl, a better boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz, Hamlet 2), and a better son to his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, The Help). Fate, however, has other plans. No sooner does Oscar ring in the New Year with his closest friends, he finds himself in the middle of a chaotic scene at Bay Area Rapid Transit's Fruitvale Station, where white policemen rush to judgment about black males, where a rookie cop loses control of a frenetic situation, and where Grant loses his life at that cop's hands.
The greatest challenge in reviewing a film like Fruitvale Station is separating the execution of the film from the real-life story the film is telling. It is easy to get caught up in the emotion that a film's story, and the reality it is based on, evoke. It is also important for viewer and writer alike to remember that the story and the execution of telling that story can coexist on different levels—that the former can impactful while the latter is flawed. Such is what I struggled with on my first viewing, but realized on my second viewing, of Fruitvale Station: the story is devastating but its telling is uneven.
The film starts with an incredibly powerful opening. Writer/director Ryan Coogler (making his feature film debut) uses actual cellphone footage from that dreadful night, and when the gunshot sounds it cuts through you, and when the onlookers react it cuts through you again. Dissolve to title card. I was immediately reminded of the incredibly powerful opening of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, which uses actual 911 calls of people caught in the World Trade Center in the minutes following the 9/11 attacks.
The film ends just as powerfully. Coogler captures the same chaos and intensity that the cell phone footage offers, with the addition of multiple camera angles, dialogue, and all of those other details that put you on that train platform with everyone else. It's a masterful bit of filmmaking. What follows the shooting is almost as powerful. (Beyond even that, the post-script is heartbreaking.)
It's what is in between these powerful bookends that is the cause for concern from a filmmaking perspective.
Going into the film, we already know how tragically the story ends, and we know the controversy and outrage that (rightfully) follow in real-life. It is horrific in every way for Grant and his loved ones and most worthy of our sympathy. So, working within the creative constraints of a story where the result is already known, and dealing with a period of time that lasts but a day, Coogler looks to garner even more sympathy by creating a character whose day is filled with an unbelievable number of selfless acts and heartstring-tugging coincidences. I won't list them all here, but they include putting a stranger in touch with his grandmother to help with a fish-fry recipe, aiding a dog that has been struck by a car, and being asked by his daughter if he will be safe on New Year's Eve because the fireworks sound like gunshots.
That isn't to say that Coogler doesn't avoid Grant's "darker" side. There is a flashback to when Grant was in prison; there is a conversation between Grant and Sophina about his past infidelity; and Grant even shows flashes of a wicked temper (flashes that are never developed, only suggested). But the number of good deeds Grant commits is so great and so varied, it's as if Coogler lacks faith in the audience to be sympathetic enough for Grant, so the writer/director instead doubles-down by giving Grant Man-of-the-Year credos in just one day.
Despite that, the cast is superb.
As Oscar's mother, Octavia Spencer resists opportunities to fall into matronly stereotypes. She also avoids the temptation to devour scenery. He delivery is well-measured and very emotional without being overwrought. She is the veteran anchor that the young cast needs. As Sophina, Melonie Diaz is good, but once Grant is shot, she is great, pouring on and pouring out the devastation her character is feeling.
But Fruitvale Station is really The Michael B. Jordan Show. His charisma is undeniable, and his range is so impressive that my two favorite scenes of his could not be more diverse: the quiet scene with the stranger and the fish-fry, which is like eavesdropping on an actual conversation; and the entire Fruitvale Station scene, where he has you convinced he is Grant to the point that you fear for his life. This television veteran (even at age 26) and frequent supporting player is ready to carry a major motion picture.
The technical aspects of the Fruitvale Station (Blu-ray) are excellent. The 1.78:1/1080p imagery presents fine clarity across a wide range of settings and lighting conditions, from nighttime at the station and softly-lit interiors to a beautiful scene of Grant by the Bay, with sunshine brilliantly reflected off the water. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is consistently clear and particularly striking during the chaos at the station near the film's end.
The disc set contains two extras. The first is a 21-minute featurette titled "Fruitvale Station: The Story of Oscar Grant." It contains a collection of interviews with all of the film's major players, both in front of and behind the camera, along with clips form the film, behind-the-scenes clips and stills, and interviews with others who are familiar with the real-life story of Oscar Grant. The other extra is "Q&A with Filmmakers and Cast." Recorded on July 12th, 2013 after a screening of the film, this 27-minute video features a Q&A session in front of a live audience with writer/director Coogler; actors Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer; and producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker.
Oscar Grant's story is an important one, and it's sad and disappointing it took his death to remind people of the problem that our society continues to struggle with. Any film that stimulates dialogue about this problem, or that gives that dialogue a kick-start, is always doing a good thing, regardless of its execution. That alone makes Fruitvale Station a must-watch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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