Thursday, December 12, 2013
"Fruitvale Station" begins with its ending. On New Year's Eve 2009 Oscar Grant, 22, black, unemployed, lies face down and handcuffed on a cold cement subway station floor.
A group of his friends sit against a wall as a stalled subway train full of onlookers -- black, Asian, white, Hispanic -- hold their smart phones over their heads, clicking away even as they shout and chant at the police standing over Oscar.
A few moments before, they were all a band of merrymakers aboard the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit train) counting down the last seconds of the day, of the year, of Oscar's short life. Then a group of white bullies stomp through the car and punch Oscar in the face. A fight ensues and the train stops. The bullies escape, but only moments before the transit police arrive.
Oscar and five of his friends are detained. The police know, without evidence, without even witnessing the fracas, that they were the provocateurs. They are black, they are loud and assertive of their rights. Ergo, they are guilty.
The cops have lasers and Glocks. At first, what we see is what was photographed by the myriad cell phones. Then director/writer Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison's camera take over.
A young, frightened, inexperienced cop holds his weapon pointed down at Oscar. A shot is fired, just one, into Oscar's back. He looks stunned, confused and then his blood runs over his lips. He slips into darkness.
"Fruitvale Station" is really the story of two young black men, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, because it is virtually impossible now to separate the two. As we watch Oscar's life being played out on the screen by Michael B. Jordan ("Friday Night Lights") the face and hooded presence of young Trayvon keeps slipping into our minds.
Trayvon was the innocent of the two. Oscar was damaged goods. Not a hardened criminal, sullied by a two-year rap for selling marijuana and carrying a weapon, he was just one of thousands of young black men walking shadowed streets, looking for a light to lead him out.
For Oscar, the light came from his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and his mother (the breathtaking Octavia Spencer).
Director Coogler takes us minute by hour through Oscar's last day. He spends some time in bed with his Sophina, trying to lie his way out of being caught cheating on her. We can see it's a damaged relationship, but one that will probably survive because of their mutal love for their adorable Tatiana.
The day wears on. There is a flurry of cellphone calls flickering on the screen, reminders from his sisters and from a friend looking for a bag of marijuana Oscar has.
He goes to buy crabs for his mother's birthday, spars with his ex boss in a plea for forgiveness. There will be none. In the meeting, frustrated and impatient, he grabs the manager's arm and we see for a moment, the side of Oscar that is darkest. But moments later, he tries to help a pretty young white woman in selecting fish for her first dinner and chats with his buddy. Here, the sweet charmer surfaces.
He takes Tatiana to her day school and meets with a drug-pushing friend. But along the way, in a struggle to find his life, he dumps the bag into the sea. Oscar smells a chance for redemption.
Writer Coogler has based his screenplay on all the data from the much-publicized case. Without proper background study, it's hard to tell how much sentimental icing or sliding around the facts director Coogler is guilty of.
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