REVIEW: Fruitvale Station

19 07 2013

Fruitvale StationCannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard

Fruitvale Station” makes no attempts to hide its bleak ending; before anything else, writer/director Ryan Coogler shows us the real-life death of the protagonist, Oscar Grant, as caught by a grainy cell phone camera.  Then we rewind the clock a day, and Michael B. Jordan assumes the role of Grant, a man with nobility and flaws just like any of us.

For an hour, Coogler walks us through the last day in his life.  It’s a poignant and well observed slice-of-life punctuated by Jordan’s great moments of humanity.  Yet without the knowledge that we’re witnessing a series of last moments in Grant’s life, the drama is essentially inconsequential.

Essentially dependent on dramatic irony for propulsion, the majority of “Fruitvale Station” feels like an average movie able to get away with not aiming for much.  But then, the inevitable conclusion arrives, and we’re faced with an incident of horrifying police brutality that claims Grant’s life (it’s hardly a spoiler, so get over it).  The emotionally charged moment is gripping and tense, enough to feel twice as long as the rest of the film.

Fruitvale

Had “Fruitvale Station” been content to contain its story to the tragedy that befell Oscar Grant, perhaps I would have less issues with the film.  Coogler, however, decides Grant’s story is emblematic or allegorical of larger racial struggles.  For all I know that might actually be the case, but I did not feel that Coogler made a strong enough case for Grant to be representative of anything bigger than his own life.

That does not make the end of his life any less tragic, nor does it excuse the behavior of the police officer who took it from him far too early.  It especially does not dull the pain we feel along with his loved ones, particularly his mother Wanda, heartbreakingly portrayed by Octavia Spencer.  But when Coogler slaps on a “Schindler’s List”-style epilogue, I left a little upset that the film’s final note was one of shamelessly cloying manipulation.

Still, I give “Fruitvale Station” a lot of credit for making me care for an average joe enough to feel sick at my stomach when he meets his fate.  The tragedy of the film for me had nothing to do with social justice.  It was that a human life was senselessly lost, and that alone is reason enough for soul-searching and mourning.  B2halfstars

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