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Film Review: Fruitvale Station

September 10, 2013

A group from Picture the Homeless went to see Fruitvale Station by first-time feature director Ryan Coogler, which dramatizes the last days in the life of Oscar Julius Grant III, who was called “nigger” and murdered by German-born transit cop Johannes Sebastian Mehserle on New Year’s Day 2009 in the Fruitvale Station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.  The latter served a mere eleven months in jail, and is one of the only instances of a police officer serving time for killing a civilian while on duty.

Coogler presents us first with the actual camera phone images of the incident, then with a dramatization of the last few day’s of Grant’s life.  Grant is a very flawed person, but at the time of his death, he was making an effort to improve it.  In the opening scene, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, chides Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) for cheating on her.  a right wing audience here and throughout the film might react the same way to Grant as they do to Trayvon Martin, some even going so far as to state that Martin had it coming or even deserved to die. It is to Coogler’s credit that he presents Grant this way.  It comes off as an honest portrayal. While they will fault Oscar for being unmarried, they can’t claim that he is a bad father, and Ariana Neal as his daughter Tatiana gives a wonderfully affecting performance.  Coogler answers such critics with an expectant couple who mentions that they married in spite of their poverty, which is Oscar and Sophina’s excuse for not being married.

The police are well-cast.  Kevin Durand as Officer Caruso is frightening, bigoted, inept, and lazy–everyone’s worst nightmare of a cop.  Presumably for legal reasons, Mehserle is referred to as Ingram, but Chad Michael Murray plays him as a blond-haired blue-eyed Naziesque German who seems like he’s a latent homosexual.

Supporting characters I particularly appreciated include Marjorie Shears as Grandma Bonnie and Ahna O’Reilly as Katie.  The former is Oscar’s sweet grandmother who is more than willing to give cooking advice to the latter, Oscar’s random new acquaintance who knows nothing about preparing fish.  I really appreciated this moment.  Being raised in the Unity Church, in which there is generally only one major congregation per city, I grew up used to a heavily mixed church and have known some wonderful elderly black ladies in my life to whom Grandma Bonnie brought back fond memories.  In a film by a white filmmaker, Katie might have been presented as a viewpoint character.  By coincidence, she is on the train with Oscar and witnesses his murder, but she is shunted to the side like all the other witnesses by Officer Caruso, who grabs the black people and ignores the Hispanics who started the fight, even though the train was stopped as a direct result of the video technology in place on the train.  the major Asian representation film is Oscar’s drug client, Marcus (Herman Tsui).

Technology gets a certain emphasis on the film.  The longest list on the end credits is all the compositors who simulated Oscar’s constant texting with video images superimposed on the photography.  This is part of the film’s style, which goes for specifics in terms of place and time, although remembering the relationship of the time of the new scene to the time before can be challenging.  This is an attempt to ground the film hard in reality, implying that all scenes have a one-to-one relationship to reality, an element of the film that would require significant research to critique.

The film predominantly lacks humor.  Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda, in a wrenching performance of a woman who blames herself because her son died as a result of following her recommendation.  Perhaps the funniest moment in the film is when the credits thank the Oakland Police Department.   In the post-screening discussion, Shaun Lin, civil rights organizer for Picture the Homeless, mentioned that the regular police department doesn’t like the transit cops, which explains this seemingly incongruous credit.  It was also mentioned that LAPD recruits its police from Hattiesville, Mississippi, one of the most racist communities in the world.

Fruitvale Station is excellent overall as a film and as a discussion starter for issues of police brutality.  The film ends with Oscar’s death and mentions Meserle’s conviction and brief prison time as an afterthought rather than go into courtroom drama.  It is Oscar’s film, not Meserle’s, and enough indignance is built up in the audience to avoid prolonging such drama any further.  The discussion concluded with hope that an African American filmmaker will address the Trayvon Martin story, and similarly ignore the sham trial that got covered by the media from a predominantly right-wing perspective.

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