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Fruitvale Station, dir Ryan Coogler, Sundance London


There’s a scene in the middle of Fruitvale Station where the protagonist, Oscar Grant [Michael B. Jordan] caresses a stray dog after it is mown down by a car at a petrol station. It echoes Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, where the protagonist also takes momentary respite at a petrol station and observes a march against the government in Mexico City, all set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing over the garage’s tannoy. But the event only serves to give more weight to the psychological pressure building in him until he finally erupts against his own frustrations later in the film. Similarly, in Fruitvale Station, as Oscar cuddles the dying dog, we are given a sense of foreboding and a hint of what we know will be Oscar’s own awful fate- and even as Oscar can only think of the dying animal, the scene is cruelly contrasted with the end of the film, where the law forbids even his mother to touch his bullet holed body as it lies motionless- and alone- in the ward at the hospital.
Fruitvale Station, writer/ director Ryan Coogler’s first feature, is based on real life events that took place at the BART Oakland metro on New Year’s Day in 2009. On that day, Oscar Grant, traveling back from watching the fireworks with his friends and girlfriend, was pulled off the train by a BART police officer and fatally shot; for seemingly no reason except that he was young, standing up for his rights and black. We learn at the end of the film that, after campaigning and public outrage, the officer to blame was charged with manslaughter, serving 11 months in a penitentiary jail.
But the wonderful achievement about this film is the sense, right from the very beginning, that Coogler gives of Oscar’s unstoppable journey towards his own death. He does this by focusing the film’s narrative through the preceeding day right up to the moment Oscar dies, and gives us a series of events, by turns progressively worse than the one before [although there are their opposite affects, to make us hope that life can be kind to him] so that we know, even as we hope against hope, that Oscar’s fate will be of tragedian proportions. The film’s opening shots are also its closing ones- mobile and documentary footage, first of the stand off between him, his friends and the police at the station and then later, the campaigners and outraged public picketing the scene of the crime. Mobile phones become an important prop - firstly used as a means of communication, then as an instrument of detriment against Oscar himself [for using the phone at work, for using it hand held whilst driving] and then, finally, as a record of evidence in his own murder, the all seeing eye that will help condemn the police officer and force the standing down of two law enforcing chiefs. 
There are moments where we are reminded that this is a fictional film when we see Oscar running with his young daughter Tatiana [ Arianna Neal] down a side street, the footage slowed down, Oscar running crouching and ungainly, almost as if he’s already dodging the bullets he will face only hours later. There are also flashbacks at important decision making moments- influencing Oscar’s decision to throw a bag of weed into the sea and informing the audience of his rocky road to recovery not just free of prison, but in a world where he can have a stable relationship with his family. Refreshingly, there is no effort made to sentimentalize these moments or use music to control the feelings of the audience. Instead the music Oscar listens to in his car [diegetic] becomes the soundtrack to the film [non diegetic], a nice play on the film and character’s social and ethnic background.

Although there are moments where the film feels too flabby, with scenes too unstructured, [although probably in an effort to lead the audience into a false sense of security] it often illustrates the helplessness of a society where some of its members are governed by laws and attitudes passed onto them and which, for the most part, they unquestioningly obey. I say helplessness because watching it one wants to shout No, Stop, as the tragic events unfold, No to Oscar’s fits of temper, to the manager who would not give him another chance, to the man who attacks him on the train and finally to the policeman who shoots him as he lies helpless on his belly. As someone else has commented, all the perpetrators are men, almost ‘reacting’ uncontrollably to events around them, whilst it is the women, the daughter included, who provide the safe haven of warmth and love and wisdom. And there’s nothing more pertinent and ironic than the ending, where all a mother wants is to hug her dead son, and is prevented from doing so because he is a suspected ‘homicide victim’, stopped by the same authority who put him there in the first place. My lasting thought was, what law and how could any law; prevent a mother touching the still warm body of her dead child? How cruel and ridiculous is that law?

all these reviews and more appear at www.critics-associated.com

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