Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013)

WHO: Ryan Coogler wrote and directed this.

WHAT: About midway through Fruitvale Station, the docudrama account of Oscar Grant III's last day or so on earth before being fatally shot on the platform of  the BART stop between Lake Merritt and the Oakland Coliseum, it becomes clear that we're witnessing a series of Grant's goodbyes to his loved ones. We know it. The filmmakers know it. Only the characters don't as their real-life counterparts didn't back on the eve of 2009 when the incident took place, although Grant's daughter Tatiana, as played by Ariana Neal, seems to have a sense of it as she voices her fears for her father as he heads out into the night.

Knowing a tragedy is soon to unfold for the characters in a movie can imbue a movie with the ability to make us pay a different kind of attention than one in which fate is undetermined as narrative progresses. If we like the characters (and thanks to excellent performances by Michael B. Jordan as Grant and Melonie Diaz as his baby mama Sophina, we probably do unless we're the sort of folks who are predisposed not to be able to relate to imperfect people), we want them to experience every moment to their fullest before the inevitable curtain close. This translates to our wanting the filmmakers, led by Coogler, to make the most of every scene and every shot. And frequently Coogler does, helped by the familiarity with location and regional slang that comes with being an Oakland native. The scenes on the BART train heading into Frisco (as the characters call it) walk a lovely line between expressing the exuberance of living in the moment and making the best of a mildly disappointing situation (being stuck in a train car during the strike of the New Year), and performing a celebratory send-off for Grant and for his relationships with friends and family.

But not every scene feels so natural in its expression of a life being wound down, completely unawares. I think the different register of attention a preordained finale invites has invited certain critics to become particularly judgmental of scenes that for one reason or another don't seem to "fit". A scene in which Grant holds a pit bull in its last moments after a hit-and-run has been criticized in particular, for being an incident taken not out of Grant's own life, but Coogler's brother's, and speculatively placed into a blank spot on Grant's known itinerary that day. The scene has been condemned as a manipulation intended to get audiences to sympathize with a drug dealing philanderer as an animal lover, but ignored in the critiques I've read is the visible stain of dried dog blood on Jordan's white shirt, visible for the next several scenes but (as I recall, though perhaps my memory fails me) uncommented on by other characters. One would think he'd change shirts first chance he gets, but instead he puts on another shirt over it, as if wanting to hide the mark from the outside world but keep the life-force of another being close. I'd like to see the film again sometime, if for no other reason than to try to further tease out the significance of this stain.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens multiple times daily at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, the California in Berkeley, the Metreon in San Francisco, with more Frisco Bay theatres expected to be added over the coming weeks.

WHY: Fruitvale Station has, of course, a built-in reason to be worth seeing by Bay Area audiences who are interested in the way that their home (primarily the East Bay, but Frisco gets its moment as well) comes off in a feature film likely to be seen and taken seriously by large audiences around the country and beyond. A film based on a real event, using real locations, and funded in part by the San Francisco Film Society is practically required viewing for anyone interested in the local film community. Thankfully it's worth seeing. 

And then, I can't escape mentioning, is the timing of the film's release with the weekend's announcement of the Trayvon Martin verdict in Florida. There are some undeniable similarities, as well as some stark differences, between the two slayings. Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two tragedies is the desperation for polarized commentators to portray the people at either end of the guns in each case as either a violent thug or a boy scout (albeit one who hadn't rightfully earned his Emergency Preparedness badge). By instinct, I'd rather avoid weighing in on the Martin case myself because I really haven't followed it as closely as everyone else I know seems to have, but this is a situation where a few brief, unoriginal statements (in lieu of the fully-reasoned-out essay the subject deserves) seems less cowardly to me than a false front of neutrality. 

So here goes: I think institutional racism is alive, well, and one of the most horribly pernicious aspects of our society today. I think that the extent of the legality of gun use in this country is absurd from every point of view other than the munitions industry and its (perhaps unwitting) supporters, and that "Stand Your Ground" laws in particular are horribly ill-conceived considering the solid tradition of self-defense in our legal system. Finally, I'm simply appalled by the instinct to turn George Zimmerman into a hero.

HOW: A 35mm print screens at the Grand Lake, while other venues screen digitally. Fruitvale Station was shot on 16mm film. UPDATE 7/18/2013: I've been informed by two separate sources that despite the Film on Film Foundation's listing of Fruitvale Station as a 35mm screening at the Grand Lake, it's in fact showing on DCP.


  1. Brian, if my memory doesn't fail ME, I think Oscar's daughter does note the blood on his shirt, and he doesn't tell her how he got it. She becomes the overloaded repository of the premonitions in the film--she sees blood, she hears guns, she doesn't want him to go, etc.

  2. Thanks Frako. I think your memory is correct and your observation of Tatiana as "repository of the premonitions" is insightful. I still think it's interesting that her mother and grandmother don't comment on the stain at all.