Film Review: Fruitvale Station

written by Leslie Byron Pitt

Fruitvale-StationPosterPoor old Michael B Jordan. A black actor picked to portray a usually-white comic character (Johnny Blaze), he faced the ire of the fanboys (despite Hollywood whitewashing ethnic characters from a Touch of Evil to Othello with little outrage). While in Chronicle (2012), Jordan played the all-star jock with a good heart who meets  an unfortunate fate, here in Fruitvale Station, where Jordan plays the tragic role of Oscar Grant, I found myself in a discussion with colleagues about this character being portrayed as  “too good”. I was tickled by the idea that in the era of the superhero, this account of a poor black boy who meets a tragic fate at the hands of a cop could be considered too sanctimonious. When looking at Mr Jordan’s body of work, I’m wondering if quite simply, he is not allowed to be “good”.

Ryan Coogler’s feature length debut is inspired by the true story of the last 24 hours of young, black ex-dealer and frames it with the argument of redemption being too far-reaching for such a person. Is Oscar being “too good”? Possibly. Maybe it’s because he lives in a world where even being good for him means being better, constantly. Coogler’s film is full of small moments that remind us how the world can be viewed by young black men. We witness a scene in which Oscar (a superlative performance from Jordan), on his day off, tries to provide shopping advice to a woman who is not sure on what type of fish to buy for her New Year’s Eve party. He politely offers his help, she silently steps away from him, weary of his hoodie and hat, yet ignorant of his polite demeanour. She only co-operates when his friend behind the counter vouches for him. The film is intelligent in its observations of the micro-aggressions that aggregate throughout the life of black youths. Oscar is someone who needs to show at every turn just how good he is as a person, but he lives in a world where he is far too often looked at in negative terms. A short and rough-edged jail time flashback show us that he’s already proved naysayers right once.

This is a flawed man whose infidelity, anger and troubled past are observed as well as his more positive side. While Oscar may be at odds when it comes to his financial burdens, his role as father to his child is not in question. Nor should it be, as Coogler shows Oscar is part of the 75% of American black fathers that take an active role in their child’s life.

FVS_Mum&OscarGrant_sadNew York Post critic Kyle Smith found himself frustrated with the films “mundane” observations of Grant’s life, yet in a cinematic landscape where normal black lives are still placed within the periphery, while stereotypes and support roles reign supreme, it’s particularly telling that the normal everyday lives of the majority are fine while that of the minority are considered un-needed or forced. What I found investing about such scenes was how richly grounded the performances make them.  Octavia Spencer handles her matriarchal role with the typical gravitas we know her for, while Melonie Diaz, as Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophia, gives a spirited performance.

Fruitvale Station
isn’t perfect. The film’s climax, while powerful and uncomfortable, also holds some of the most jarring contrivances involving characters we’ve noticed before. One of the most debated moments involving a run-over dog may be a well-illustrated metaphor for how Oscar’s life is finally viewed, but also feels a tad on the nose in consideration of matters. And while many find the opening 90 seconds to be the most powerful, I wasn’t too sure about the placement. As mentioned before, the film is blunt and not as nuanced as could have been hoped for.

That said, Fruitvale Station isn’t really about nuance. Such tones are best saved for films which FVS_Oscarpleadshave more leeway. The film affected me in a similar way to Boyz n the Hood (1991) or Menace 2 Society (1993). The film is blunt in a way that “hood” movies often are, and there’s a necessity for its directness due to the message itself:  that persons like Oscar Grant, in life or cinema, are given little leeway and no chance to get things right. Once again, we perceive shades of other true life stories that penetrate our media-hungry society, from the likes of Travon Martin to Mark Duggan. The details may have been revised slightly (Coogler gives the film a good degree of dramatic licence) but the outcome remains the same.  Maybe the film shows Oscar as so good because in real life, men like him will, no matter what, always be considered bad first.

Smith’s review hinted not only to not pay too much mind to the film, but also to Grant himself, giving both the film’s final words (“Where’s Daddy?”) and proceedings in general a grim sense of irony: when it comes to black characters who try to buck stereotypical trends, the majority don’t want to know. For me, Fruitvale works because it displays such matters so unflinchingly. It demands us to view the world in a way only too common for young Afro-American men.

Leslie Byron Pitt

Fruitvale Station is released in UK cinemas on June 6th.
see the full cast list here
read an inteview with the film’s director here
ee a list of nationwide cinemas on the special facebook page