(directed by Ryan Coogler, 2013)
**** (out of 5)
* * *
> After seeing this excellent film, I am convinced that FRUITVALE STATION was criminally overlooked in the 2013 Oscar race. I found this solid drama well worthy of a Best Picture nomination. No big surprise- few people wanted to see a tough film about race in America. And it is often so painful to watch, knowing you are seeing a reenactment of the final day in a decent man’s life, murdered by the “mistake” by a BART officer who claims that he thought he was reaching for his Taser when he grabbed his gun and fired at point blank range, killing Oscar Grant.
. As in the Paul Greengrass films UNITED 93 and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and Katherine Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, viewers are watching a piece of recent history with which they are well familiar, raising the question of how to wring tension from a conclusion you know is inevitable. Here, in case we are ignorant of the facts, we are reminded in the first moments by seeing actual cellphone footage of Grant’s murder, recorded by fellow BART passengers on that fateful day. Mercifully, the footage cuts to black just as we hear the tragic shot ring out. The re-creation of these tragic events that follows leaves no room for interpretation when it comes to the race issue. In this version of events, the security guards are obviously disproportionately terrified of any group of black men. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were all college professors or ballet dancers- because they were still and always inescapably black. (It’s the same thing that appears to have doomed Obama’s presidency. Black is black, and racism is very real and alive in America!)
. The murdered man was not a saint. Like many urban youth he had his struggles, but the details of the movie make it impossible to put the victim in a box, to hang the label of “bad boy” on him and blame him for his own death. We see an understandably frustrated young man with anger management and substance abuse issues, and run-ins with the law- a man who just can’t seem to catch a break in life. But we also see a man who cares for his put-upon mama, (excellently played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), helps his sister with the rent, takes loving care of his daughter, tries to do right by the child’s mother, is helpful to strangers (and white folks) and kind to stray animals: in short, an actual three-dimensional person, subtly played by solid actor Michael B. Jordan who is very real and sympathetic in every frame.
. Living as he did, with institutionalized racism that placed him on the defensive every waking moment of his life, the mistake Oscar appeared to have made was in daring to stand up for himself- literally. If he had been the good little disempowered citizen the security guards would like to have seen, he would have swallowed his pride and outrage and just sat there waiting for them to finish doing their thing. But Oscar was an innocent man. He had done nothing but defended himself against a racist attack. Does an innocent, wronged man have the right to stand up for himself? Sure… as long as he isn’t black.
. In my estimation this is a real horror film. It’s riveting and tragic filmmaking!
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