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The Invisible Truth: Fruitvale Station Review by Trevor Cunnington

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fruitvale Station Review by Trevor Cunnington

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Fruitvale Station is a special film that does almost all the right things. I find my thoughts returning to the film quite often in the week since I’ve seen it. It takes a familiar narrative, adds a few surprises, bucks the mold of emotional evocation in film, does some daring things, some plain things, and some innovative things all with panache. It acquires a particularly intense gravitas because of its roots in real events in recent history. I saw it in Toronto, in a less than half-full, smallish theatre, and I hope it was less than half-full because it has been running for a while. This hope is particularly strong because of the resonance between Oscar Grant’s murder by the BART police and the recent murder of Sammy Yatim on a street-car in Toronto. Where is the word of mouth momentum?

The familiar narrative is that of the struggling young black man in urban America, and the difficulty of escaping the ghetto. It takes as its point of departure a cell phone video of the real life event of Oscar Grant having his head slammed into the concrete of the Fruitvale transit station in Oakland, California, and then being shot by BART police officers. Thus, it does a daring thing, narratively speaking – it shows the end of the story first. Not only that, but the footage is so jarringly authentic, I must admit it made me feel a little nauseous. (The advantage of this approach is that the film can’t be “spoiled”). Then, it rewinds to the day leading up to this event, and we follow Oscar trying in difficult circumstances to be a better person. Difficult circumstance #1 is he cheated on his girlfriend, with whom he has a young daughter. Difficult circumstance #2 is he has been fired from his job at a grocery store for lateness. Difficult circumstance #3, we find out later, is a troubled relationship with his mother that he tries to mend by taking on responsibility for the success of her birthday party on December 31, 2008.

After a terse interchange about his activities for the day with his girlfriend, he heads out to the grocery store where he used to work to try to get his job back. One of the innovative things about the film is the blending of onscreen action with a second screen: that of his cell phone as he texts and dials various people. Thus, it tries to deal with the opacity of phone interactions in real life to offer a more internal glimpse of Oscar’s life to great effect. The sequence in the grocery store is marvellously executed. He gets his friend to get him some high-quality crab for his grandma’s famous gumbo, and notices a young white girl struggling to make a decision for a type of fish for a fish fry. After some slick signals with his friend, he lets her know he works there, but is on his day off. Then he calls his grandmother, a master traditional cook, to instruct the young woman. The meaning of this scene is lent some interesting ambiguity by the context of his conversation with his girlfriend in the second scene of the film about cheating and the context of his visit to the grocery store. Being that we don’t know a whole lot about the character yet (except that he has the characteristically fatherly tendency to curry favour with children out of the disciplinary reach of the mother), he could either be trying to pick up this young woman, or he could be trying to go the extra mile in customer service to get his job back. When we learn more about his character, the latter becomes the more likely interpretation.

After this exchange, he tracks down the store manager to beg for his job back. The manager refuses, and we see Oscar has a temper as his voice escalates in anger. The sound editing of this part is masterful, with very subtle ominous tones accompanying his raising voice. As a tactic of persuasion, he asks rhetorically and heatedly if the manager wants him selling dope again (marijuana). This makes no difference, as the manager has already hired someone else. Then we see Oscar driving around in his car, alternately listening to music, and making plans on the phone. One of the plans is his mother’s birthday party, so he speaks both to her and his sister, who can’t make it because she’s working (probably a low-paying job). His mother chastises him for talking on the phone and driving, so he jury-rigs his phone under his skully hat so that he has both hands on the wheel, then he pulls over, showing how he is trying to be more responsible. He’s 22, and we can grant him some slack on this front. He also makes a phone call to a drug buyer to make an appointment.

It is on the rocks (the visual symbolism is telling) of the waterfront that he has a memory, narrated via flashback. The memory is of the year before, when he was in prison for his mother’s birthday, probably for dealing marijuana. His mother visits him, and they discuss his girlfriend and his daughter, from whom they’ve kept his incarceration secret. During their terse conversation, which begins with his mother asking about a welt on his face, a leering inmate makes a stray comment directed at Oscar, and Oscar explodes in anger. Presumably, this is the man responsible for the welt. After this explosion, Oscar’s mother implores him to calm down, and then tells him she will not visit him any more. He then erupts again and is restrained by prison guards, but it is not in anger this time, but despair, as he repeatedly yells an apology to his mother as she walks away in the foreground. This scene likewise has great sound editing, with the same ominous tones accompanying his outburst. We can see the absolute no win situation he’s in: if he doesn’t put on his tough front, he’s liable to suffer consequences later, but by putting on the tough front, his mother’s regard for him suffers.

After this memory, we see him take the bag of marijuana, and empty it over the rocks and the water. When his buyer shows up, he hands him a small packet for free and apologizes by saying he already sold the pot. The buyer rolls up and smokes, and then he goes to pick up his girlfriend from work and his daughter from the day care. His girlfriend verbally heckles him for smoking pot in the car before picking up his daughter, and he doesn’t bother to correct her. We realize later that he is probably mulling over what to tell her regarding his lost job. When they pick up their daughter Tatiana, we see him race her to the car, and this scene is tastefully rendered in slow motion with the sun in the background helping to signify the great relationship he has with his daughter.

Later, as they plan to go out to the city to celebrate the new year, he suggests staying in. She presses. A sequence of his mother’s birthday party is likewise well rendered with overlapping dialogue and a nice touch of domestic realism. His mother urges him to take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) instead of drive to San Francisco so they don’t have to worry about being sober to drive. All good advice that ends in catastrophe, with all the tragic implications that the girlfriend and mother must bear afterwards. The train gets delayed, so they are stuck on it when the new year turns. But, never fear! Someone has speakers and an mp3 player, and the subway car erupts in a party. Then, to return to the familiar narrative, Oscar’s prison past catches up to him when the man who threatened him during the conversation with his mother recognizes his name when the woman whom he helped at the grocery store sees him and calls his name. In this moment, his troubled past catches up to him and erupts in violence. The BART police are alerted, and the tense events leading up to the shooting are well-acted on all parts. My favourite thing about this film is the editing in the last few minutes. While Oscar is in critical condition in the hospital, having been shot in his back, the bullet piercing his lung and causing massive internal bleeding, we see a shot of him and his daughter Tatiana, speaking lovingly with each other. Unlike most films, which use music manipulatively in moments like these to evoke emotions, Ryan Coogler chooses to leave this segment totally silent. The result is heart-rending. The last two shots are absolutely gut wrenching, as the director includes in the final shot footage of a shy, downcast real-life Tatiana attending the anniversary of her father’s death. Thus, the film is bracketed by amateur video shots to lend its story an extremely endearing authenticity. This is the only film in the last six years I’ve been to that I’ve heard people audibly sniffling at the end.

For my theory nerds, this film is a great example of Benjaminian historiography; it does important work of salvaging history from the distorted view of the victors by telling it from the perspective of the people who get squashed in its imposing march. It is aesthetically wonderful: it doesn’t shy away from metaphor and symbolism to add heft to the story it tells and it is also daring and innovative. For me, it is a close call between this and The Hunt (Jagten) for best films of the year. Indeed for these two films and The Place Beyond The Pines alone, it has been a great year for film.

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