Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fruitvale Station


Director Ryan Coogler


USA  (90 mi)  2013  d:  Ryan Coogler

Coming on the heels of the Trayvon Martin shooting Shooting of Trayvon Martin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, many Americans view any young black kid as a threat and a thug, where some believe there is no value in his life at all and he likely got what he deserved, judging him instantly through racial perceptions, where they might be surprised he had never been arrested and never had any criminal record, yet there are literally millions who simply refuse to see Trayvon’s potential as making the least bit of difference in their lives.  Then a film like this comes along, offering rare insight into the complexity of a young black man’s life, yet what’s perhaps most troubling is it touches on perceptions already racially etched in stone, becoming a parable on race in America, a eulogy on the offspring of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  This is a film one can approach through a variety of different pathways, each of which might blur the vision of other viewpoints, where viewers tend to see what they want to see in projects like this one, based on a real life incident where an unarmed young black man was shot and killed after being detained by white BART subway police in Oakland, California, where coming into the theater people already have formed views and opinions about the subject matter, especially this one, which typifies everything that is wrong in America.  While on the surface it deals with troubling realities that tend to be sensationalized in the media—young, black, unemployed, hair-trigger temper, criminal history, blighted neighborhood, unmarried with child—all of which fit the profile of how America views “high crime,” barely batting an eye when the news spews out reports of daily shootings and killings, where life seems to matter less in racially segregated, crime infested neighborhoods, but this film digs beneath the surface and examines the day to day complexities faced by residents living there.  It’s perhaps too easy but altogether necessary to cast a racially incendiary slant on the story, where all too often white cops end up murdering black youth. 

Blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of other Americans, where the rate is even higher for murder (6 times) and robbery (8 times), while the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males and 16% of Hispanic males, and if that black male drops out of high school, the number skyrockets to 50%.  Matters have only been made worse by the War on Drugs, where in the past decade, the Department of Homeland Security has funneled $7.1 billion dollars in grants to local police departments, which have been used to provide local departments with military hardware, including tanks and armored vehicles, spying facilities and technology, access to national databases and infrastructure, and equipment for use against political protests.  While supposedly combating “terrorism,” the intended target tends to be urban areas with a large and highly condensed minority population, the regular sites for drug raids and arrests, where blacks in particular have a higher sentencing rate than other Americans, even for identical crimes.  So while this bias is built into the criminal justice system, it also reflects the mindset of local cops on the beat, where at the moment it is estimated that the police kill a black man, woman, or child every 28 hours, which is an increase from a few years ago when it was every 36 hours.  Nearly half have no weapon on them, or anything resembling a weapon when they were killed, though in more than a third of the cases the police allege the victims displayed a weapon, often disputed by witnesses on the scene, as only 18% (less than one in five) are actually armed.  Even though women are less likely to be killed, in a glaring way they are included in a troubling number of these deaths, as 20% result from women initiating a distress call to police for domestic violence issues, where rather then removing the agitated offender, he is shot and killed.

While one may not know the exact statistics, most are familiar with an overall racial disparity *before* they see the movie, so many bring their pre-conceived perceptions with them into the theater, which the filmmaker addresses immediately, as the opening few shots of the film are readily available and already viewed by millions on TV or YouTube through blurry cell phone camera footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit cops beating Oscar Grant and his friends on a subway platform just after 2 am in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day, 2009, ending with a gunshot YouTube Oscar Grant Clearest Video Of Shooting Post it!!! - YouTube (1:59).  Oscar had already been detained and is lying on his stomach, head to the pavement, as one policeman tries to cuff him while another has his knee in his back, when inexplicably one of them draws his service revolver and shoots him in the back POLICE SHOOTING AT BART STATION - OSCAR GRANT - YouTube (3:28).  Since this is based on a real life incident, the outcome is already known by the opening shot of the film.  The filmmaker then takes us back into the preceding 24 hours leading up to that moment, shot in a cinéma vérité style using a handheld camera, where the life of the victim is the actual subject of the film, and based on the dramatic power of the performances, which are considerable, his life is not only memorialized, but humanized, where the film puts a face behind the heavy stream of statistics by asking us to spend a day walking in someone else’s shoes that may be unfamiliar to a majority of viewers.

The movie has already won significant awards, including the Best Dramatic Film and the U.S. Audience Choice Award at Sundance, while also winning the Best First Film in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, where it received a rousing two-minute standing ovation.  In some ways, this film resembles BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), another character driven depiction of the everyday violence that consumes so many lives in South Central Los Angeles, but that film focuses on senseless gang violence.  While some may find this film to be a jolt of social realism that finally attempts to address the issue of racial injustice in America, including crimes against black men, but there isn’t a hint of police involvement in this film until the actual incident, as whatever trouble Oscar had previously with the law, which included two brief stints in prison for drug dealing, he has only himself to blame for getting himself into those situations.  Since he does nothing to provoke the officer, some insist this is a blatant execution, seen in strictly black and white racial terms, but it’s difficult to understand an intentional murder in front of so many witnesses, though the police do significantly overreact, especially on an evening that is already filled with overly rowdy, high or inebriated New Years revelers, where the outcome of this particular occurrence feels more like a tragic accident inflicted by an amateur cop.  The incident led to marches and protest demonstrations, even riots expressing a furious outrage at the crime.

Rather than address the social conditions that precede this incident, where the music and movie industry both go to great extremes to accentuate black stereotypes, including a thug culture that promotes street credibility, where prison time produces bragging rights among gangsta rap artists, which sells more records, the director cleverly assumes the audience is already familiar with all that.  So rather than a piercing piece of social criticism, Coogler chooses a simpler more minimalist route, where Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar with convincing believability as we follow the mundane details of his daily routine, including flashbacks years earlier when he was in San Quentin prison (where his mother’s visit is one of the most riveting scenes in the film), as we watch how he handles the various pressures of the day.  While he’s butted heads with a variety of people, he’s already walking on thin ice with his beautiful wife Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who recently caught him with another woman, has left a traumatized impression for being away so long with his adoring 4-year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and he’s hiding the fact he’s been fired by his boss for coming in late so often, while his mother (Octavia Spencer) watches him like a hawk, having had her heart broken once or twice already.  

This is largely a day-in-the-life film, where Oscar awakes promising to make a fresh start on the New Year, where the drama unfolds through his personal relationships with friends, family and various acquaintances, where much of the day is spent attempting to make amends.  Oscar is in nearly every scene, where the film’s authenticity is constructed by a build-up of low key sequences given a near documentary look, where because of the nuanced, understated subtlety involved, a major complaint could be registered against the way he is portrayed by the filmmaker, where the contrived goodness of his character is overemphasized, optimistically making him larger than life in the few brief hours he has left, almost as if he’s finally seen the light, which certainly has a manipulative feel to it, especially knowing the eventual outcome.  But rather than go overboard with scathing negativity, as some critics have done, one might simply conclude the filmmaker intended to express a view that Oscar, like Trayvon Martin, had the potential to do good.  The true power of the film, however, comes from the amazing performances that literally “make” the film, as the leads are quite simply astonishing, where the lasting mental impression is how articulate and fully developed several characters become in such brief screen time, as Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz literally nail their scenes.  But it’s Michael B. Jordan’s film and he deserves plenty of credit, rising to the occasion and ultimately making this film matter, providing the dramatic heft the film needs to expose the senseless tragedy of what has become an all-too-often, everyday occurrence.

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