It is no small task to release a film about a controversial shooting against the backdrop of a heated debate of racial attacks in America, particularly one where justice became murky quite quickly and an sour taste was left in the mouth of those both directly and indirectly involved in the incidents. It is even more challenging to release a film against the existence of very real footage surrounding an event, one whose violence is factually chronicled, yet still wildly inexplicable. That is precisely what occurs within the context of Ryan Coogler's cinematic and poignant directorial debut Fruitvale Station. A film that possessed such an evocative theme and decided force from its very inception, Fruitvale Station was already on my radar well before its release and the closer to its release date it came, the more it seemed as though it was on the tails of the Trayvon Martin case, whose presence invariably exists all over this film. Fortunately, the film does manage to navigate the tenuous and troubling issues with a degree of awareness about the layers of representation, suggesting that even the most seemingly understood of individuals can prove to have a set of motives and challenges that invariably come to challenge any notion of changing or starting over. There have been many films like Fruitvale Station prior and there will, undoubtedly, be many films like it to follow, what they all lack is an understanding that they invariably exist outside the frame of the reality, attempting to posit a layer of credibility to a set of events that can only be certain in the previously reality, thus making the film a statement about what can and should occur in the aftermath of a tragedy. Whereas, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, from which Fruitvale Station inevitably pulls, is afforded a pre-9/11 space to create a narrative against an assumed outcome, Fruitvale Station cannot create quite the same sense of a simulacra of events. Coogler understanding that his work is occurring after the events of Rodney King, as well as in a post-9/11 framework chooses to audaciously bookend his film with images of the real, making each fabrication and directorial choice that much more purposefully and precisely heavy-handed. It is a profusely audacious decision, but one that pays off in incalculable ways.
Fruitvale station, begins with actual cell phone footage that depicts the arresting of Oscar Grant III, which leads to an assumedly accidental shooting, before cutting to the fictionalized version of the events leading up to the real incident. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is shown talking with his girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz) about their respective New Year's Resolutions, while also caring for the couple's daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Hoping to get his feet back on the ground after a stint in jail, Oscar returns to his old job begging to be forgiven for his continual tardiness, which has direct ties to his selling of drugs, an endeavor that assumedly caused his jailing, which is also dealt within in the narrative. Despite his inability to attain a legal job, Oscar vows to end a life in the world of selling drugs both for his daughter and girlfriend, as well as for his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) who seems to serve as the only guiding presence in Oscar's desultory life, especially considering his notable devotion to assuring that she has an enjoyable birthday. After attending his mothers birthday party, Oscar and Sophina plan to meet up with various friends and attend New Year's fireworks in San Francisco. The group meets up and despite the general drunkenness of those on the subway train they are traveling, nonetheless, seem to get along with little or no trouble, the general glee of New Year's celebrations momentarily transcending race, class and gender divides. At one point, Oscar even appears to meet up with a man whose work in web design could prove a ticket to a respectable job and step in the right direction. Tired from the events the group returns home on an even more crowded train, at which point Oscar by a wicked twist of fate runs into an enemy he made while in prison leading to a minor incident on the train. Nonetheless, the scuffle results in subway authorities entering the train and forcefully removing Oscar and his friends. The two leading officers become incredibly aggressive in their methods, pushing Oscar's face into the ground and eventually shooting him through the back. Realizing their mistake the officers quickly rush Oscar to the hospital, but it proves too fatal a wound to save and he is left on life support until it proves futile to keep him alive, the film closing with Sophina showering a confused Tatiana who simply asks where her father has gone, and in an even more sobering closing moment, the film cuts to a 2013 vigil for Oscar and a match cut of the real Tatiana crying closes the film, reminding viewers of the reality of the event and the contemporary presence of such inexplicable loss through acts of violence.
I know when I have reviewed a film like Red Eye, I praised its for its self-aware existence in a post-9/11 framework, where they understand that the ebb and flow of their narrative is entirely contingent upon an understanding that the majority if not the entirety of the audience is aware of the tragic inexplicable act of violence that occurred at the World Trade Center. Red Eye kowtows into the absurd as a clear juxtaposition to the real violence, but also accepts that its tension is derived from that acknowledgement, particularly given its plane-in-flight setting. Of course, the major example of post-9/11 cinema will always be United 93 poignantly directed by Paul Greengrass, but Fruitvale Station may well exist as the clear second in line to this work, in that, like United 93 it accepts that it is a fictional consideration of a very devastating and very real occurrence, one whose images are easily accessible and for many viscerally and permanently burned into their memory. The moment of the planes hitting in United 93 is not recreated, because to do so would be to compete with a collective memory of the reality, a fabrication would seem ill-conceived and to many offensive. With this in mind, reading Fruitvale Station as a film working within the space of the post-9/11 filmmaking framework is particularly fascinating, because like Greengrass does in United 93, Coogler accepts that his narrative is existing within the space of real images, ones available and catalogued heavily on the internet, an example of viral video becoming a powerful tool for justice and political action. As such, Fruitvale Station is a poetic realist fabrication of the events leading up to the shooting, beginning the film with the real events as a means to assure that at no point will this film attempt to extend or challenge the reality, because it has been captured and to contest it, or undermine it would be to nobody's credit, particularly not that of Oscar who was very much a victim, as the cell phone footage affirms. In so much, as it instead becomes a tribute to the ethereal memory of the lost Oscar, the film is post-9/11 instead celebrating moments of a remembered character, both in their ups and downs, hoping to show a scale of humanity that is discussed in the aftermath of such tragedy, while never suggesting itself as anything more than a film. Indeed, as the closing shot of Fruitvale Station attests, no amount of glorified cinematic composition can help to deal with the tragic loss that affects those in the reality, but in an ideal world something like Fruitvale Station can at the very least afford people a space to consider their emotions and frustrations of such events, without hostility and violence becoming the immediate answer.
Key Scene: Tatiana chasing Oscar after he picks her up from day care will break your heart, and again, this is because the film sets up from the beginning the certainty of his death and Coogler manages to make the fictionalized version of Oscar stand in for an emotive replacement nearly immediately, a challenging task made much easier by the stellar, Oscar-worthy, performance by Michael B. Jordan.
Go to a theater and see this, it is what should ideally be shown for 10+ screenings a day, as opposed to The Man of Steel.