Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 19, 2013 2:43 pm 
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The last day of Oscar Grant

Young filmmaker Ryan Coogler chose the true-life controversial tragedy of a young African American as the vérité basis for his first feature. It's a tumultuous account of the last day in the life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, fatally shot on the Fruitvale platform of the San Francisco BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system early on New Year's Day 2009 by BART police. Several young black men had been pulled out of a car and held after a melee on the way back to Oakland from San Francisco. Grant died later from internal bleeding at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Coogler has won awards and high praise, partly through his vivid filmmaking, which flows seamlessly and energetically and captures the feel and talk of black Bay Area life -- and partly through the balls-out performances of a cast led by the intensely charismatic Michael B. Jordan (of "Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire") as Oscar Grant; soulful Melonie Diaz as Sophina, his girlfriend; and the deeply authentic Octavia Spencer as Wanda Grant, Oscar's mother. The movie won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which had helped fund it, and then the Un Certain Regard Prize of the Future at Cannes, though the film, which has won high praise from American critics, did not figure in major Cannes awards or get much response from European press.

Several observers' cell phone videos of the event show that, whatever fighting he'd done on the train and hot words he'd exchanged with the police, and these are shown, Oscar Grant was shot in the back lying on the platform and his killing was needless, arguably racist. Dissenters about the film's depiction of the hours leading up to this however complain that Coogler's screenplay makes Grant into too much of a nice guy to heighten the sadness of his unnecessary death. A particularly brutal Cannes reaction of that kind came from Mike D'Angelo, who tweeted "W/O" (he walked out after 40 minutes) "because I was totally fine w/cops killing civilians until I saw what a super-nice guy the victim can be." Then he added: "He loves his mama! He helps clueless white girls with their fish fry! He comforts symbolic mortally wounded dogs! He just stopped dealing!" Glenn Heath Jr. called the film "glaringly simplistic," and Geoff Berkshire, reviewing for Variety, said the film "rings false" "with its relentlessly positive portrayal" and he was later seconded, when three higher -ranking critics for the magazine had their say, by Justin Chang, ("Naive Tribute Strikes False Notes"). Peter Debruge and Scott Foundas, however, spoke in favor of Fruitvale Station, which at that point, till Weinstein bought it for $2 million, had the vaguer title of Fruitvale.

I don't think this heightening or tweaking of the character of Oscar Grant is the main problem. The upbeat touches may occasionally be a bit crude. But they're a natural effort to transform everyday events into art. Whatever he was given to do, Michael B. Jordan was going to give his all, and he has a lot to give; he's been compared to the young Denzel Washington even by black film critic Armond White, whose assessment of the movie was positive, but somewhat mixed. White writes: "Coogler makes Oscar an existential casualty (as suggested in the overly symbolic scene where he helps a stray dog after a hit-and-run accident) which might be even worse than analyzing another infuriating municipal accident. Jordan’s marvelous characterization is betrayed by this concept."

But Jordan's smiles and hugs, his warmth that jumps of the screen, are as natural to Coogler's portrayal as Oscar's heightened good deeds. Oscar takes a big hunk of weed he was going to sell, and he needs to, since he's lost his job for coming late to work and knows now he can't win it back. At the movie's most theatrical midpoint, he goes out on rocks by the Bay and has a meditation that turns into a flashback of jail time when he lied to his visiting mother and she threatened never to come visit again. Back in the present, he tosses the drug into the water. Yes, he's trying to better himself, but he's got a lot of bettering to do. Helping the "clueless white girl" (really a middle class woman in the grocery store) can just as well be seen as a subtle way of hitting on her as a pure act of kindness, or part of the excitement of the day when he's going to be eating his mom's "famous gumbo" before he heads to the City with his friends and his girlfriend -- the sad irony being that it's his mom who pushed them to go by BART instead of driving. Whatever he was given to do, Jordan would have made it irresistible. This is no sad sack like the protagonist of Rossellini's Bicycle Thief. But he's either pretty flawed or simply typical of a poor young black man with more charm than prospects living in Oakland.

None of this is a problem. The trouble is that despite the heightening and shine put on Oscar, there's still not all that much unusual about his day. Coogler has not the time nor the genius to make this into Joyce's Ulysses. Even the New Year's Eve jaunt is ho-hum -- vividly though Coogler shoots the patches of it he supplies us with. It looks like the group, stuck on the BART train at midnight, just go into San Francisco, find a place for the women to relieve themselves, and then head back.

Notwithstanding the hugs and games and pleadings and mishaps, the hopes and disappointments and changes of heart, Oscar's actions through the day have been, all in all, pretty ordinary, quotidian, even a little feeble. It's only when the final events arrive, the chaos on the BART car, the cops, the shooting, the hospital, Sophina showering with Tatiana (Ariana Neal), their little girl, that it becomes heartbreaking and significant. Not before. And that's the trouble. Coogler and his cast and crew have done fine work, but they haven't entirely solved the problem of how you make an ordinary day -- even with his mom's birthday and New Year's Eve to add significance -- into something that feels as tragic and momentous as it turns out to be.

Reaction of the black community to the killing of Oscar Grant has been intense ever since, as closing shots in the film of a 2012 New Year's demonstration at the station show. End titles tell that the "officer," Johannes Mehserle, never mentioned by name, was sentenced to two years and released after 11 months, though the other BART police were fired and their boss resigned.

Fruitvale Station debuted at Sundance, followed by Cannes, L.A., San Francisco, and other festivals. US release was 12 July 2013. European releases, including France, are set for Jan. 2014. Screened for this review at the Grand Lake Theater of Oakland, California, where its theatrical premiere was held.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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