Fruitvale Station, dir/wr. Ryan Coogler, st. Michael B. Jordon, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
In the early hours of January 1st 2009, Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African American man from Hayward, California was fatally shot by police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. 370 miles south at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, there lived an African American School of Cinematic Arts graduate student called Ryan Coogler. These two individuals and their stories would eventually intertwine when Coogler would be chosen by Forest Whitaker’s production company Significant Productions as one of a group of new young filmmakers they were seeking to mentor. Ever since hearing of the news of Grant’s death, Coogler had expressed a desire to translate the tragedy onto the screen, and to invite the audience to invest in Grant’s character, his life, and the events leading up to his tragic death, later telling The New York Times “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”
To fully realise Fruitvale Station, Coogler worked closely with John Burris, the attorney for the Grant family, in order to get information on the case, as well as the Grant family themselves. The director's loyalty to total authenticity is clear. His commitment to absolute realism permeates through all the elements - screenwriting, directing, cinematography, acting, editing - right on through to the unobtrusive sound-bedded score. It’s apparent Coogler wanted to recreate the moments of this man’s life with full neutrality. Less than 100 years after the nightmare that was Birth of a Nation’s heroes ‘defending Anglo-Saxon civilisation against the Negro menace’, we now have a character based on the facts of a real figure’s life, a fully actualised human being, with hopes and fears, strengths and defects, illustrations of people he loves and people he doesn’t.
When we first see Oscar, he’s trying to persuade his girlfriend into sleeping with him, but she still feels a lack of trust for her after his previous infidelity. We don’t quite trust him ourselves, yet in the next moment he’s comforting his sleepless 8 year old daughter, Tatiana. Michael B. Jordan’s incredible performance takes us down the route of cinematic depictions of black men first championed by Sidney Poitier and Lou Gossett Jr, the most important aspect of which being the subversion of assumptions, yet it is interesting to ponder upon how those assumptions have changed in the last 50 years. The world Oscar occupies is our world, with the same, eventually deadly, assumptions. And while Poitier and those who followed would play on the presuppositions of white audiences by appearing as cultured, well-mannered and polite, Jordan instead re-characterises the oft-demonised ‘menace'. We see Oscar attempting to change his life, to regain his job, we see how he is with his mother, his children, his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz). However, he is still human. He is still subject to the social pressures and inequalities of the world he lives in. He has been to prison, he disposes of his marijuana in an attempt to go straight, and he gets into a fight on the train, where moments before he had been kissing the mother of his child. This is the fight, instigated by old rivalry, is what causes Oscar’s downfall. The attending itchy-fingered BART police officer, seeking out those involved in the fight who are still hiding on the train, pulls Oscar out in order to arrest him instead of the Caucasian man who threw the first punch. Just like the beating of Rodney King before him, and the killings of Travyon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Antonio Martin and many others since, Oscar falls victim to a system that ultimately doesn't do enough to condemn the murder of unarmed African American men by the very authorities that are empowered to protect them.
Cooler's Fruitvale Station fights dangerous assumptions, it fights stereotypes, and it fights the system that America cannot seem to escape. He has crafted a film that calmly and artfully exposes a history of black oppression distilled into one terrible moment. Like Ava DuVernay's recent Selma, it's undoubtedly an essential, mesmeric watch that educates and angers with equal measure.
Review by Ben Oliver