Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fruitvale Station

2013's FRUITVALE STATION may be viewed as the cinematic equivalent of an attorney's (posthumous) case for a worthwhile life. A life worth reconsidering. Prior evidence revealed years of bad decisions and jail time, perhaps spurred on by unchecked rage and immaturity. Then came a day of repentance. But also, reckoning.

The defendant: a young man named Oscar Grant who recognized his downward spiral and took preliminary steps to reset his path, over the course of one day.  An eventful day of failure, accountability, realization. An effort to make things right for himself, his girlfriend, and his young daughter.  But time had run out.

The indications were apparent: Oscar, for all his flaws, was able to put his woes aside and help out strangers in need.  He attempts to get his old job back at a deli, and despite an altercation with his former boss, stops and takes a moment to assist a young woman, desperate to impress her boyfriend, who needs advice on how to cook soul food. Later, while in the city for New Year's Eve festivities, he convinces a guy closing up his shop to let the ladies in his posse (and also another stranger who happens by, who's pregnant) to use his restroom. Small gestures, but nonetheless revealing that beneath the quick to anger predilection was a desire to being a positive force in society.

While waiting for the women, Oscar chats with the pregnant woman's husband, who reveals the dramatic turnaround in his own life. He even gives Oscar his business card, and an invitation to call upon him for a possible job. Perhaps the "in" Oscar needed, validation that his decision to end his drug dealing career by dumping a bag of weed several hours earlier was correct.

But anger makes Oscar his own worst enemy. On the train back home, he will be goaded into a fight and subsequently subdued by transit police. There are words exchanged, overreactions by Oscar and his friends and the cops.  Eventually placed face down on the cement at the Fruitvale station, he will be the victim of a hastily fired shot from an officer's gun. Oscar will not live to deliver on his promise.

FRUITVALE STATION is a tight, entirely involving drama.  Writer/director Ryan Coogler is occasionally guilty of heavy handedness, such as a (nonetheless effective) scene with a dog hit by a car; foreshadowing rarely gets more obvious. Otherwise, Coogler gets out of his own way and lets the (true) story tell itself.  A story that has unfolded too many times. It's likely that as you're reading this another tragic tale in this vein is making the news. As I write, there's Michael Brown, and the continuing daily fallout in Ferguson, Missouri.  Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Clement Lloyd all those years ago in Miami. How many more of these stories will we shake our heads over?

In movies such as FRUITVALE STATION, there are always some liberties with the facts, the timeline of events. Filmmakers sometimes arrange moments for dramatic effect, and even if that is true here I found the picture to be genuine, to earn its emotions without being too manipulative, even during the expected big scenes, as when the Oscar's family gets the terrible news at the hospital.

Michael B. Jordan III, perfectly cast as Oscar, leads a fine cast of unknowns. He embodies a character we feel we already know well, that guy we know has potential but has allowed his vices to dictate his actions and inactions. Jordan explodes in anger, positively smolders at times but in quieter moments, like at his mother's birthday party or with his daughter, reveals a tenderness that melts his crippling appetite for destruction.

Whatever your final verdict on Oscar's fate and how his legacy should be viewed,  and also of the law enforcement officers involved, this is an hour and a half worth spending.

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