REVIEW: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Is a Slight Take on a Hefty Subject

Michael B Jordan

I don’t know whether Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing Fruitvale Station, timed its release to coincide with George Zimmerman’s trial over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It’s certainly a fortuitous coincidence, although I’m not sure how much the trial would sell a film about similar circumstances, the unnecessary killing of an unarmed young black man. I would simply call it art imitating life, even if in this case the art itself is based on real life.

There has been so much written about this film since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year that it almost feels weighted down with too much expectation to seduce me as much as it might have had I known nothing about it going in. While I thought it was finer filmmaking than last year’s similarly hyped Beasts of the Southern Wild, it met the expectations I took away from the trailer rather than the breathless hype in the media: that it’s a festival film with modest ambitions about a controversial real-life story that in the end isn’t told with broad enough scope to sustain a feature film.

Like Beasts, a lot of the hype is due to the extreme youth of the film’s writer-director, with Ryan Coogler stepping into the wunderkind role Behn Zeitlin filled last year. That Coogler’s script was developed at Sundance Labs and the film produced by Forest Whitaker, and bolstered by seasoned key crew from other indie hits — notably cinematographer Rachel Morrison — has certainly helped push Fruitvale beyond what it should have been, an accomplished film school graduate thesis.

Fruitvale opens with camera-phone footage of the shooting of twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant at the hands of BART policeman Johannes Mehserle in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009. After this jarring intro, the story retraces Oscar’s last day, painting the portrait of a young man who is a loving father, a dutiful son, a boyfriend struggling to overcome temptations and perhaps marry his girlfriend, and an ex-con desperately in search of employment so he can keep on the straight and narrow.

Melonie Diaz

Melonie Diaz is utterly believable as girlfriend Sophina

As much as Fruitvale feels like hagiography at times, and perhaps it is, there seems little doubt that Oscar was a great guy who was a victim of racial profiling gone horribly wrong — Mehserle thought he was reaching for his taser when he pulled his gun instead and shot Oscar in the back. The recreation of events and the accounts of witnesses who heard the officer say, “Get back, I’m gonna tase him!” would seem to bear this out. It would also seem too strange for Mehserle to have carried out a summary execution, as some claim, with so many people around for no apparent reason. That the cop has an Afrikaans name and looks like a blond Boer just stepped off the farm could be thought of as reverse racial profiling; had he been black, perhaps his claim of a tasing gone awry might be accepted without as much question.

While not strictly speaking cinema vérité, Fruitvale is certainly shot in a vérité objective-camera style, and that is a wise decision for a number of reasons. Coogler’s most effective scenes are the more chaotic ones, with three or more people speaking at once, or tracking the complex movements of two or more people. That in itself is ballsy directing for a first timer, and he pulls it off beautifully.

Oddly, the more static scenes, particularly two with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer, are weaker, both in terms of the obvious dialogue and the rather flat way the actors are directed. Having said that, the over-the-shoulder two shot is probably the most boring of filmmaking angles, but the most necessary in stories like this, and therefore the most challenging to pull off well; Coogler has a bit of work to do with this technique if he intends to continue with this sort of dialogue-heavy drama. Another issue is the mistimed pulled focus in a number of sequences, namely in the car with Oscar and his girlfriend when they’re driving home from mom’s birthday dinner. This cranky pulled focus happens so often it must be a stylistic decision, but it’s one I found rather annoying.

Ariana Neal

Ariana Neal doing Shirley Temple

The not-very-subtle exploration of cause and effect — had Oscar not had that conversation with the girl in the grocery store, maybe she wouldn’t have called out his name on the train; had Oscar’s mother not insisted he take the train, perhaps he wouldn’t have been on the train in the first place — is the most interesting device and one I would have liked to see explored further. In fact, I would have gone so far as to try to make this film from two points of view and included Mehserle’s as well; after all, the film begins with both men. I say “try to” because I can’t make that judgment call: I don’t know how interesting the cop’s life was, but if Oscar’s is deemed worthy of sustaining a feature, then I’m sure something could have been gleaned from his killer’s, too. If the film begins with a fatal interaction between two men, why not make it about both?

Coogler’s deft use of sound design boosts the chaotic scenes as well as the quieter ones. He also has an admirably light touch with the performances — the actors almost seem to improvise, adding credence to the vérité style. Ariana Neal as the daughter deserves particular mention; compare her to Quvenzhané Wallis and you’ll begin to understand the issues I had with Beasts. But does Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Oscar deserve an Oscar, as so many critics are saying? Not from my perspective, although it does have moments of nuance, particularly when he moves from impassive to enraged in three seconds flat.

Would I have seen this film had it not been boosted by all the hype? Probably not. In that respect I do give credit to Harvey and his Amazing Marketing Machine. Having said that, the film does explore meaningful issues in a reasonably objective way. Personally, had I been caught in the situation that Oscar found himself in moments prior to his shooting, I would have acquiesced and waited for things to calm down. But it’s unlikely that as a middle-class white man I would ever have found myself in that situation, even as an angry young man — indeed, in my few brushes with the law, I’ve always diffused the tension quickly by being glib and charming the thug in charge. That is the unintentional point of seeing this film for anyone like me: it forced me to spend an hour and a half in this boy’s shoes. In terms of putting us there, both Coogler and Jordan have done an extraordinary job, so much so the middle-class white man seated behind me sobbed all the way through the credits. That right there is effective filmmaking.

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James Killough
James Killough

Comments: 4

  • Lorelei Moon July 13, 20135:24 pm

    I imagine that most people will have an emotional reaction to the film as it sounds like it’s done quite well. A friend sent me a link to the trailer a while back and I sobbed after watching that! I’m not sure I can watch the film. It hits so close to home. I live in Oakland. 
    I didn’t know Oscar, but I do know people who did and from them I have heard convincingly, that he was a wonderful young man, loving father and really working hard to keep his life on track. The shooting was one of  those events that is made more disturbing because of all the little coincidences; elements that came together resulting in something so outrageous happening when it just shouldn’t have. I agree, it might have been interesting for the film to tell more about Mehserle, but it might have been difficult to get him and his family to cooperate. They all seem generally to want to disappear. Who could blame them? It is really strange to think that Mehserle could confuse his gun for his Taser, especially when they are carried on different hips. It also seems ludicrous that he he executed Grant in a crowd on purpose.  It didn’t see fair that he senior officer, I forget his name, was not held to some accountability.
    The saddest thing is that BART police don’t seem to have learned from or improved since this event. They have had a history of being ineffective and of using unnecessary force. This is not the first time they’ve shot an unarmed black man. According to BART, they’ve had 6 officer involved shootings in 40 years resulting in three deaths. I’m not sure if they are including  Jerrold Hall, an unarmed black teenager a BART officer shot in the head (with a rifle) in a Bart parking lot back in 1992. Hall’s father asked for an oversight committee then, and didn’t get one. In 2001, after the Grant shooting, BART police also shot a drunk transient in the chest and killed him. It would be great if the film embarrasses BART enough to finally consider doing something about their internal problems.

    • jkillough July 13, 20135:46 pm

      Lorelei Moon Thanks for your detailed comment. I confuse my left from my right even in moments when I’m not stressed and so much chaos is going on. What I wanted to know was if a taser had a similar safety switch to a pistol, and it turns out it does! In exactly the same place so you can flick it with your thumb. So it’s basically a gun, and if I were fumbling for it just by feel I am sure I could make that mistake. I think it’s clear from the film and what Coogler says in interviews — i.e., that he has no judgement as to whether Mehserle’s excuse is valid or not — that it was likely a horrible accident.

      • Lorelei Moon July 13, 20135:58 pm

        jkillough Lorelei Moon I tend to agree that it was a horrible accident. It’s also clear from the aftermath of this and both previous/subsequent incidents that BART police are not adequately trained. Yes, mistakes and accidents will happen, but armed police of any kind are supposed to receive many hours of training so that they will be calm in the face of chaos and so they know exactly what they are reaching for. I have also observed that many BART officers with an amped up attitude. I think they often have nothing to do and are just looking for a chance to flaunt their authority. (Again, poor training.) This is something that I noticed with many Oakland PD officers during the Occupy movement. They were excited and enthusiastically looking for some heads to bash in. This is one of the many reasons I did not participate in any of the Occupy rallies.

        • jkillough July 13, 20136:38 pm

          Lorelei Moon jkillough That’s why I say “thug in charge.” It takes a certain personality type to go in that line of work. Sadly, it’s a trade off we make in order to maintain security for the tribe. But they managed to change the NYPD substantially from the rogue state it was in during the 70s and 80s to what it is today, so hopefully they will do the same in Oakland, which has a crime rate similar to NYC’s during that period. That tends to make security forces jittery and trigger-happy.

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