Chronicle of a Senseless Death Foretold: “Fruitvale Station” Is a Masterful First Feature

Special noteI also reviewed this film on-air today, on WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks. Check it out.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

Fruitvale Station tells the tragic story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man who was fatally shot in the back, at close range, early in the morning of January 1, 2009, by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) officer in Oakland, California. Even if the film were not being released in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, it would still be a tremendously important work of cinema, and a must-see for all. It is almost unbelievable to me that this is but a first feature by a young director, since almost everything about it feels so self-assured. Perhaps the 26-year-old Ryan Coogler took his lead from his more experienced cinematographer, Rachel Morrison (who shot the film in Super 16mm, no less, for an eventual blow-up to 35mm – this is no digital feature), or perhaps he’s just that good. Beyond the excellence of the filmmaking, however, what is truly extraordinary about the movie, as my colleague Linda DeLibero commented after we watched it together, is the way in which it so (seemingly) casually puts the life of an ordinary young African-American man on the screen, without judgement, in all its mundane (and occasionally not so mundane) glory. In America, anyway, this does not happen very often.

Another thing the film does is to mix and match actual documentary footage of the shooting (and of protests afterwards) with the fictionalized material. The movie opens with cell-phone video of the real Oscar Grant’s shooting. We see it, and it makes no sense, given what we witness. The screen fades to black, and the story begins, 24 hours earlier.

In the great Colombian author Gabriel García Marquéz’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold, we are told at the outset what the outcome of the story is: a man dies. And yet we read on, fascinated and horrified to see how the death happened, and how close the man came to not being killed. We know it is foreordained, so our interest lies in understanding the details of what led to the result. In Fruitvale Station, there is a similar fascination and horror, yet by the end what strikes us most is how un-foreordained Oscar Grant’s death was. There is, in fact, no logic to the outcome. True, Grant was no saint, and had even served prison time. In fact, as the film begins, we see him with a big bag of marijuana. We also see that he has issues with responsibility and with anger. But – just as in the Trayvon Martin shooting – none of these details are in any way relevant to the events surrounding his shooting. None of us are perfect. Do any of us deserve to die because of our flaws?

At least one reviewer – Geoff Berkshire of Variety, one of the rare critics who did not like the film – has argued that the movie spends too much time making Grant look like a hero. I disagree. I think that Coogler – scribe as well as helmer – takes pains to show us the many sides of the complex individual known as a human being. We see him be sweet to his daughter and to a dog, but we also see him grab his former boss almost too roughly by the arm. We see him kiss his girlfriend with great tenderness, yet we also know he has cheated on her. This is, after all, a scripted drama, not a documentary (in spite of the cell phone footage). I’m sure that not all events in the last day of Grant’s life transpired as portrayed, but that only adds to my respect for Coogler’s talent. He has written a brilliant and nuanced script, and then adapted it almost flawlessly for the screen. As another academic colleague of mine, Hollis Robbins, commented after the screening, there is something quite Shakespearean about the way Coogler brings all of the film’s characters – main and ancillary – together on that fateful train. And if it worked for Shakespeare . . .

Beyond the writing, directing, and cinematography, the acting is also superb. Michael B. Jordan (most famous, so far, for his role as Wallace in Season 1 of “The Wire“) inhabits the role of Oscar Grant with great charm and emotional power. As his girlfriend – and mother to his child – Sophina, Melonie Diaz (whom I remember first seeing in the marvelous 2002 Raising Victor Vargas), is lovely and strong. And Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for The Help) brings her usual quiet authority to her part as Oscar Grant’s mother. Finally, the young Ariana Neal, as Tatiana, Grant’s daughter, is heartbreakingly cute and moving. Somewhere out there, right now, is the real Tatiana, mourning her father.

The film is not perfect. There are a few scenes that do not quite work for me. But who cares? The overall feeling is one of great mastery, and gratitude that such an intelligent and capable filmmaker has made this movie, which tells its story with love and respect, not only for its subject, but for all of us watching.


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