Ryan Coogler is from Oakland, California. He was attending USC Film School in 2009 when Oscar Grant III was shot near the BART station. From those experiences were born his first project. He envisioned Michael B. Jordan in the lead role. Thankfully his vision and the casting came to fruition.
I appreciate smalltime gems like Fruitvale and Short Term 12 (which both came to by attention at the same time). Maybe they are very intentionally crafted into these intensified dramas with heightened bits of reality but there’s also something meaningful in how they are able to tell smaller scale stories in an economical way. That in itself is an art just like making a cohesive blockbuster is an art.
The allure of the picture comes in putting us in the moment. Coogler works in capturing the final hours of Oscar Grant’s life which would seem mundane and unextraordinary if it weren’t for how they were capped off. It’s a film that breeds a certain amount of empathy because the camera is always over the shoulder, at the hip, or in the most intimate spaces putting a lens on what is happening.
But when the picture turns tragic there’s this undeniable sense of immersive drama while still crafting a story that connects to all of us. It feels as if all facets of Oscar’s character are put up to the light.
Because if you put up the magnifying glass to each of us you soon realize that we don’t always act the same way around everyone. When you see Oscar in his different interactions each person brings out something else in him. And he is very much a people pleaser.
What the story offers up are these perfectly manufactured moments (some better than others) to capture the contours of a single individual. None is fake per se — a facade if you will — but oftentimes various interactions bring out a certain side of someone. The lady attempting to have a fish fry and struggling miserably appreciates Oscar’s genial nature to call up his grandma and get her help. There’s the entrepreneur who has created his own web design business who thanks Oscar for finding a bathroom for his pregnant wife. Even the dude who comes to Oscar to pick up his smokes.
They are hardly central characters but each interaction serves the purpose of the story. However, this is not solely a film for the African-American community though it was an important story to tell.
Coogler in the way he purposefully draws up the narrative seems to be suggesting that it is for all of us. It’s not about color as cut and dry as black or white. It’s not even about good versus evil. It’s about issues of race and violence and injustice still clearly visible in our world. But not in a way that makes one party out to be the hero and completely demonizes another.
We connect with Oscar no doubt but we see his flaws as much as his humanity. He’s gone through a long stint in prison. His temper smolders dangerously as much as his spirit is generous to his friends. He rather immaturely covers up his troubles at work. But he’s 22 years old. In fact, maybe its just that. His flaws are his humanity.
And with the law enforcement we see the brutality but what is just as prevalent is fear and confusion. In the heat of that moment I’m not sure what I would do. All I can do at this point is give the benefit of the doubt and mourn the loss of a human being taken from this earth far too quickly in the worst circumstances possible.
Its true the fateful moments — seen in real cell phone footage at the beginning and reenacted later on — are full of chaotic tumult that we can’t quite understand. What’s even more haunting is the fact that Coogler got permission to shoot in the very locations where Grant was fatally injured. In that specific sense, the film couldn’t be more authentic.
One of the sequences that resonated was the communal prayer in the hospital corridors. It’s true you can read someone’s character in the times of pandemonium but also immediately following. It’s in the turbulence where Octavia Spencer takes charge in the best way she knows how and probably in the most effective way. Because there’s a helplessness in the air. This is one way to keep things together.
It’s one of the films most unifying moments for me because amid the torrent of understandable anger and apprehension it establishes a singular instance of calm in the wake of such emotion.
The film ends much as it begins with footage of the real because that’s what this is in a sense. Reconstructed, undoubtedly stylized and put back together with inevitable human biases as it may be, I appreciate its efforts. The intentions seem candid and the results speak in such a way that though calling out this brutality is more concerned with making Oscar into a version of a human being not just another thug or a victim to be pitied in order to rally a cause.
Didactic films get tiresome but Fruitvale Station rarely feels like that. Its platform undoubtedly is a social one and yet the director quite adeptly makes sure his narrative resonates on an individual less austere level.
Of course, to form a truly robust, well-informed opinion of the events more accounts would be necessary but as a film there is definite quality in this production. I still hold that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have one of the best collaborations going on in movies right now. Here’s to hoping they don’t let up anytime soon. I’m eager for more stories from them. I think many other people are thirsty for them too.