All words: Alan Pyke
It’s hard to imagine higher stakes for a movie. The last 24 hours of a human life have served as cinema fodder before, but Fruitvale Station takes on the real-life killing of Oscar Grant by Oakland light-rail police officers in the small hours of New Years Day 2009. It’s a fictionalized slaughter whose true-events mirror what’s already been seen: cell phone video of BART officer Johannes Mehserle shooting Grant in the back while he lay prone on the train platform. The footage went around the world long before Mehserle was arrested. Months before he was tried. Two and a half years before he was released from jail, his only legal fault dubbed “involuntary manslaughter.”
How, then, to handle the story for a multiplex audience? What could a filmmaker, even a good one, hope to add, rather than exploit? Lucky for everyone, writer/director Ryan Coogler has good answers to those questions and any others you’re weighing.
The first: cast Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle) to play Grant. Jordan’s emotional dexterity as an actor has been his hallmark for years, but there’s something to his work here that he didn’t show in his breakout role as a soft-hearted drug war pawn. His portrayal of Grant is assured, lived-in, unfaltering, all those great critic terms for acting that isn’t merely committed but transporting. Jordan is so good in the part he makes you forget it’s a part, that it’s artifice. He gives credibility as Grant’s veers between earnest, loving tenderness when at peace and learned, performed aggression when desperate.
And there’s Coogler’s second answer to the obvious risks of filming such a story: show Oscar Grant as a human being, honestly, with the mixture of nobility and complexity and un-angelic fringes that entails. Better still, Fruitvale Station doesn’t reserve that open-eyed multidimensional treatment of people for Grant. Every single person you’ll meet in the movie when you see it – you should see this film – gets the same degree of depth and internal conflict that makes its lead so captivating.
“Unflinching” is another of those critic words that may soon lose all meaning, but it’s the right one for Coogler’s filmmaking. A moralistic take on Grant’s tragedy would be an unbearable exercise in point-making, but the calm visual approach Fruitvale takes matches the clear-eyed storytelling of the screenplay. Coogler mostly relies on handicams and close-ups, placing rightful trust in his script and his actors. Occasionally he gets bolder, as when the camera follows Oscar around the side of the house where his daughter Tatiana goes to preschool, luxuriating in lens flare en route. But whether it’s Oscar’s charming-but-unsettling attempt to bypass his beloved Sophina’s anger over an infidelity, or Oscar emotionally savaging his mother (Octavia Spencer) during a flashback prison visit, or the crucial late-night train platform killing, Coogler puts the audience’s eyes relentlessly close to the humanity on display. By avoiding slick camera movements and keeping the editing rhythm languid, Coogler forces the viewer into honest reckoning with ugly and beautiful moments alike.
In a sense, the filmmaking cushions the wrenching, brilliant core of Fruitvale Station: awful things happen to good people, good people aren’t angels, and unjustifiable violence without malice has irrevocable consequences and no simple solutions.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceVVVils8z4