Friday, 20 June 2014

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is a rare example of a film based on a true story that feels politically essential.

Too often Hollywood dishes out factual stories from several decades ago that have little relevance to the contemporary political landscape. In films like The Butler and Mandela for instance, the central message seems to be: ‘look how racist people were back then? Thank goodness things aren’t like that anymore’

Director Ryan Coogler made Fruitvale Station not with the aim of celebrating some past American ‘hero’, but with an urgent sense that modern racial injustice needs addressing. His film documents the day in the life of young black man Oscar Grant before he fell victim to a trigger-happy policeman, an incident that occurred as recently as New Year’s Day 2009. In light of other high-profile police killings, this film reminds us that institutional racism is a problem of today, not just yesterday.

Despite being such a politically charged film, Fruitvale Station is characterised by a sense of compassion rather than anger. Coogler makes an effort to understand and sympathise with every character involved, and as a result his film is full of richly drawn, believable people. What impresses most is his positive view on people and his clear fondness for the characters – his enthusiasm is infectious and we find ourselves easily relating to them, which makes the devastating moment at Fruitvale Station that the whole film is building to all the more heartbreaking.

Coogler is aided by an excellent cast, most of all Michael B. Jordon as the protagonist Oscar. As anyone who has seen him as Wallace in The Wire will know, Jordan, with his wide smile and soft eyes, exudes a natural likeability that renders him immediately sympathetic. His character is flawed and has spent time in prison, but possesses an innate childlike goodness that Jordan evokes effortlessly. Melonie Diaz, meanwhile, is similarly impressive as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer shares some great emotive scenes with him as his mother.

One of the reasons these characters feel so real is through Coogler’s use of naturalism. The dialogue has the stuttery feel of real talk, and the use of hand-held camera enhances the realistic flavour of the action. The scenes depicted are drawn from such mundane occurrences as dropping his kid off at school and buying groceries, which, rather than boring us, create a warm feeling of intimacy with Oscar and affectively immerses us in his day-to-day world.  Events are never sensationalised and characters never sentimentalised, all of which helps put authentic human faces to the names surrounding the incident.

The political context of the film also comes through in these grounded scenes. Oscar’s  choice between scraping a living for his daughter by attempting to get his poorly-paid job at the supermarket back or to risk prison again for a large payday selling a stash of marijuana hints at the limited options available to a young working class black man in America. But it is on a personal level that the film works best, and its powerful and moving ending will leave you with a genuine sense of outrage and injustice.

Like the cell-phones that recorded and made famous the incidents the film is based on, Fruitvale Station aims to present something that feels like an authentic depiction of reality. Coogler understands the power of the camera - both the phones and the grainy footage they capture and the one used by him to make the film – as a tool to broadcast reality on a large scale, and uses it to draw our attention to issues of racial injustice and police brutality that must be constantly reiterated. 

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