Variety Critics Weigh in On Acclaimed Drama
Note: Variety first reviewed “Fruitvale Station” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival under its original title, “Fruitvale.” In this week’s 3View column, our top critics give Ryan Coogler’s widely debated debut feature a second look.
COOGLER’S FILM RECLAIMS GRANT’S HUMANITY
I hope Harvey Weinstein hasn’t changed anything other than the title of “Fruitvale Station” (nee “Fruitvale”), because even six months after Sundance, where it won the audience award and the grand jury prize of the dramatic competition, Ryan Coogler’s powerful debut feature stays with me. Coogler’s film isn’t the flashiest or most original movie ever to win Sundance, but in its carefully observed, unvarnished portrait of middle-class African-American life, and its acute sense of injustice, it makes a major impression. It’s the kind of movie Sundance was built on, strongly rooted in the social-realist tradition of directors like Charles Burnett, Gregory Nava, John Sayles and Robert M. Young.
“Fruitvale Station” is based on a sensational case — the shooting death of 22-year-old Oakland native Oscar Grant by transit police on a subway platform in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. But there’s nothing sensational about Coogler’s approach. He even starts with the real, pixelated cell-phone video of Grant’s death — not, as some have suggested, to add to the feeling of encroaching dread, but rather to defuse it, lest anyone in the theater not already know how this particular story ends. From there, Coogler retraces the fi nal 24 hours of Grant’s life, and much of what follows feels
as authentic as the movie’s documentary opening.
Coogler strings together small, incidental scenes that, when put together, form a complex portrait of a wayward young man trying to get his life on the right track. The operative word there is “trying,” for it is one of “Fruitvale’s” strengths that at no point does the film suggest Grant would have been sure to succeed. By the time the movie begins, the character has already served two state prison sentences and has something of an innate gift for falling in with the wrong crowd. And while it’s true that Coogler shows us Grant the loving son (to a nurturing mom, beautifully played by Octavia Spencer), husband (to patient wife Melonie Diaz) and father (to a 4-year-old daughter), he and the extraordinary young actor playing the role, Michael B. Jordan, also give us Grant the fasttalking, streetwise hustler, who can’t manage to hold down a job and seems ill prepared for the world of adult responsibility.
Like the Rodney King case a decade earlier, the assault on Grant quickly became an intensely political event, turning Grant himself into something of an ideological pinata, variously deifi ed and vilified depending on which group was doing the polemicizing. There are those who have leveled the same accusations against Coogler’s film, including Variety’s Geo Berkshire, who accused Coogler of sacrificing “nuanced drama for heart-tugging, head-shaking and rabble-rousing.” To these eyes, Coogler’s film reclaims Oscar Grant’s humanity, in all its shades of gray, from exactly such black-and-white thinking. But I’ve certainly seen the movie Berkshire was describing; it’s called “Crash.”
NARRATIVE FRUSTRATIONS, BUT REAL EMOTIONS
Variety caught flak for running an extremely critical review of the film that reduced several crowds to tears at Sundance, then went on to win the festival’s top jury and audience prizes. I stand behind our review, though I would say to all who have been and will be moved by “Fruitvale Station” that its artistic shortcomings do not in any way dampen the deep emotional connection it creates between Oscar Grant and those a million miles removed from his experience.
On Jan. 1, 2009, a BART Police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Grant. This incident would be a tragedy under any circumstances, regardless of whether its victim was a gun-slinging gangbanger or the sort of do-gooder Coogler depicts: a disenfranchised young man who loved his mother and tried to assist every stray dog who crossed his path.
While it’s unfortunate that Coogler feels compelled to stack the deck, my real issue with “Fruitvale Station” comes down to the fact the filmmaker hasn’t cracked the story. Instead, he presents a sequence of moments in the 24 hours that preceded a tragedy. The result ultimately feels more akin to Gus Van Sant’s non-narrative “Last Days” (an exasperating reimagining of the time leading up to Kurt Cobain’s suicide) than a proper movie.
Perhaps this is a narrow-minded way of looking at things. At its best, cinema can be a deeply humanistic medium, offering audiences unique and potentially profound opportunities to empathize with total strangers. And stories in which compelling, proactive characters attempt to accomplish specific goals are the most reliable way to forge this connection.
“Fruitvale Station” exasperated me on first viewing because each of Grant’s actions is so clearly calculated to manipulate our allegiances: One moment, he’s giving a nice white lady his grandmother’s fish-fry advice, the next, he’s heatedly threatening the manager who fired him for being late to his job. Revisiting the pic last week, however, I realized I wasn’t giving Coogler enough credit.
The bulk of the film takes place on New Year’s Eve — the moment humans everywhere make life-changing resolutions. The movie opens with Grant and his g.f. trading self-improvement goals, and it tracks the character as he struggles to be a better man: trying to get his job back, giving up drug dealing, attempting to be a worthy father, son and partner. The obstacles Grant faces are both internal (his temper and trouble taking responsibility for his actions) and systemic (racist transit o cers, criminally inclined peers, etc.), until his efforts are cut short by an act of unthinkable brutality.
The tragedy isn’t simply that a hot-headed cop ended Grant’s life just as he was starting to get it together, but the suggestion that even his loved ones didn’t know him. Most of the character’s attempts at betterment happen in private, as Coogler charitably invents moments of personal progress, allowing us to witness gestures Grant’s frustrated mother and g.f. weren’t necessarily even aware of.
If you can get past Coogler’s manipulation, his uneven direction of exceptional actors and the artificially unsteady camerawork, the essentials are there. At Bay Area rallies, protestors carried banners that read, “WE ARE ALL OSCAR GRANT.” To the extent that “Fruitvale Station” succeeds, it invites those who might never have considered Grant’s experience to put themselves in his shoes for 90 minutes.
NAIVE TRIBUTE STRIKES FALSE NOTES
How do you make a movie about the last day of someone’s life? More specifically, how do you spin a mostly self-contained, roughly 24-hour narrative that is also an honest and resonant reflection on the years that preceded it? There have been many fine recent examples, from Alain Gomis’ little-seen “Today,” a mystical, dreamlike fable about a Senegalese man awaiting a fateful visit from Death, to Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” and Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Among their considerable virtues, these very different films avoid the mistake of telling you exactly what to think about the flawed, complicated human subjects whose fleeting last moments they have granted us the illusion of sharing.
And then there’s “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s well-acted, well-meaning and fundamentally misguided drama about the final hours of Oscar Grant III. Showered with tears and prizes from Sundance to Cannes, it’s a racially charged, ripped-from-the-headlines story offered in the spirit of a eulogy, and it has been hailed as a work of such wrenching truth and humanity that to take issue with it, apparently, is to take issue with the man being eulogized.
My Variety colleague Geoff Berkshire learned this the hard way when he noted that Coogler’s film “mostly functions to further the transformation of a flesh-and-blood man into an unintentional martyr” — a dead-on assessment that clearly struck a nerve among the picture’s many admirers. “Your privilege is showing!” tweeted director Ava DuVernay, as if a dissenting opinion could only be the product of profound insensitivity to matters of class and race, as opposed to, say, the skeptical, free-minded exercise of one’s critical faculties.
As it follows Grant (well played by Michael B. Jordan), helping others and trying to help himself, “Fruitvale Station” employs a camera strategy too often used to signify authenticity — rough, observational, handheld — and places it in service of a loose narrative patchwork that, even as it tries to keep it real, hits a succession of false notes. A first-time writer-director, Coogler displays a nice rapport with actors, but he doesn’t have the dramatic restraint or the eye for poetic, quotidian details evinced by the great realist filmmakers, and even his attempts at subtlety feel insistent and calculated. He’s so determined to show us his hero’s heart of gold that he contrives to have Grant tend to a dog injured in a hit-and-run, a wounded innocent that foreshadows the man’s own untimely tragedy. And because the drama leans so grimly on our knowledge of what’s to come, Grant’s tender good-night farewell to his daughter — neither one aware it will be the last time they see each other — becomes almost stomach-churning in its emotional exploitation.
As the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting continues to rage, there could be no better time to consider the issues that Grant’s story raises about the deceptiveness of outward appearances and the reality of everyday prejudice, violence and fear. Given how vilified Grant was in some quarters, and how quick we still are as a society to assume the worst about a young black man on the street, it’s only understandable that Coogler would feel compelled to defend his subject’s humanity. But I lose patience with a film naive enough to argue that a senseless killing should upset us because, look, the victim was a decent, misunderstood guy, when the harder, less palatable truth is that it should upset us regardless.