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Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Premise: A dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an African American who was killed in a confrontation with a San Francisco police officer.

What Works: Fruitvale Station is a bold picture, but not in a way that is in the audience’s face. Instead, this is a movie that is quietly subversive, confronting viewers’ preconceptions with humanity and using its accumulated empathy to challenge the legitimacy of authority. The filmmakers lay the foundation for that in their cast. Fruitvale Station is primarily a character study of Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, and the actor and the filmmaking crew have crafted a fully realized character. The filmmakers spend the bulk of the movie making clear that Grant is a full person; among other things he is a father, a son, and a boyfriend and throughout the last day of his life the filmmakers present him in situations that draw the viewer’s empathy. Although the filmmakers of Fruitvale Station are clearly on his side, they do not make him perfect. Grant is an ex-con, having been locked away for drug dealing, and unemployed, as he lost his job due to tardiness. Grant also has a strained relationship with his mother and his girlfriend, traffics illegal substances, and does not always make the best choices. But those flaws give his character credibility and enhance the filmmakers’ goal of creating empathy for him on the part of the audience. The rounded portrayal extends to the rest of the core cast and all of them are terrific, namely Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother and Ariana Neal as his daughter. The fact that Fruitvale Station portrays an African American family in such holistic dimensions is itself a drastic contrast with most mainstream American cinema but the filmmakers go a step further in the ending. Having marshalled the audience’s allegiance for Grant, the filmmakers then place him in conflict with law enforcement and the climax is a heartbreaking finale that implicitly questions the legitimacy of law enforcement, and especially their use of violence. Perhaps realizing the deus ex machina implications of the ending, the filmmakers smartly bookend Fruitvale Station, opening with camera phone footage of the shooting and closing with its dramatic reenactment. This integrates the shooting into the movie so that it isn’t out of character with the rest of the story, while not diminishing its impact.

What Doesn’t: Fruitvale Station suffers from the limitations inherent to dramatizations of real life events, especially films about random acts of violence. It is similar to films like United 93 and The Passion of the Christ in that the story has a very narrow focus, recreating a limited historical event. Like those films, Fruitvale Station successfully places viewers in the moment, both in terms of the action but also in terms of the emotional state of the people involved. What Fruitvale Station and movies like it cannot do is reach a conclusion about what the event means. The picture is framed by the shooting of Oscar Grant but what his death represents for the audience, and why the filmmakers are subjecting us to this story, is much more nebulous. There is value to what the filmmakers of Fruitvale Station have done—they’ve put a human face on a tragic event, and specifically on an African American male, and that alone is exceptional—but there isn’t much more to the film than that. This limitation is an unavoidable result of the way in which the story is presented. In well-told fictional dramatic narratives the ending is the logical conclusion of the events that preceded it but a movie like Fruitvale Station upends that expectation. That makes this film more than a little subversive, which is to its filmmakers’ credit, but it also results in a story that is largely perfunctory.

Bottom Line: Fruitvale Station is likely to provoke debate and possibly even protest but what should not be ignored is how skillfully it has been made. Whatever its polemical goals, Fruitvale Station is superbly acted and almost perfectly produced.

Episode: #451 (August 11, 2013)