By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
They were brought here in the hulls of ships essentially to build the new country. Then, when the foundation was nearly completed and the Industrial Revolution loomed, moral indignation, economics and an increasing divisiveness brought war. And though emancipation came, a corruptly disingenuous Reconstruction reminded of Pharaoh’s change of heart after letting go the Israelites. True freedom was yet to be won.
Thus the way was paved for the troubles that have occupied the American consciousness to this day. It has permeated our national character in an endless series of tragedies that sadly exemplify our inability to gloriously lift ourselves from the primordial murk of prejudice.
Hence, we can only hope that the heartbreaking tale of twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant superbly assayed by writer-director Ryan Coogler’s historically important, dramatically scorching monograph, “Fruitvale Station,” sheds light on the social conundrum.
Young Mr. Coogler astutely structures the backstory and account of events leading up to that terrible moment when fear, impulse, enmity and misunderstanding culminated in a perfect storm on the BART platform at Fruitvale Station in the first hours of 2009. An eye-opening perspective is offered as once more our domestic shame rears its ugly head.
Oscar Grant, a financially troubled, recently unemployed Bay Area father excellently realized by Michael B. Jordan, puts a face on the otherwise anonymous population of African-American men challenged by the multifarious disadvantages that, despite improvements since the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, remain a harsh reality.
Oscar has already served a stretch at San Quentin State Prison when we meet him. A smartly textured series of expository scenes, for the most part sympathetic, paint a picture of the daunting hole from which he hopes to extricate himself. He’s in a bit of a spot with Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), thanks to a recent indiscretion. Yet he’s bent on righting that wrong. The suggestion is, he’s about to grow-up…the fast approaching New Year marking the watershed.
As part of that resolve, he seeks to convince the boss at the food market, who fired him for being late, to rehire him. Yet, in a dramatic balancing act Coogler effectuates to both cast a shadow of doubt and evince the festering vexations his protagonist harbors, an ill-tempered Oscar grabs and threatens the manager. In practically the same time space, he good-naturedly tries to help a customer find the recipe for a perfect fish fry by connecting her with his Grandma Bonnie.
Back and forth it goes…his attempts to do the right thing inevitably met each time with roadblocks real as well as perceived. Not only is his rent due, but so is his sister’s and, unaware that he is recently unemployed, she asks his aid. So, he’s going to sell some pot to make all the ends meet, just this last time. But then something happens there, too.
We agonize and recall Kevin Kline’s soliloquy in “Dave” (1993) about the dignity a job brings…the sudden sunshine that comes into one’s life, enhancing prospects and allowing us to dare dream of a happy future. But the cards are stacked high against Oscar who, though he sees glimpses of escape from his star-crossed circumstances, can’t quite pull himself up from the morass.
As a function of survival, Oscar seamlessly switches his persona with chameleon-like alacrity. In the white world, as exampled in one seemingly incidental scene where he shares a momentary, encouraging camaraderie with a reformed thief, the otherwise prevalent argot born of culture and the generation gap is all but absent.
He is a doting son when with his long suffering mom, compassionately etched by Octavia Spencer; an enthusiastic, fun-loving dad when roughhousing with Tatiana; a mixture of bravado and contrition when trying to smooth things over with Sophina; and a cool dude—just one of the guys, digging the vernacular— when hanging out with his boyhood pals .That’s the group he and Sophina join on their trip to Frisco that doomful eve.
Director Coogler shows filmmaking ability and philosophical maturity that belie his mere 27 years. A product of the geography and society he so studiously dissects and analyzes, it will be interesting to see if he can bring the same, emotion-filled talent and insight to his next feature-film project.
His storytelling is pungent with a disquieting portentousness whether you know the saga or not. He mixes conventionally staged drama with skillful, handheld camera work and, adding a revolutionary wrinkle to the muckraking art, responsibly incorporates actual cell phone footage at crucial moments. He is decidedly compassionate but confidently resigned to objectivity.
The known facts, corroborated by the trial that followed, are artistically presented with wrenching panache. Frustrated, we can only conclude that this heartrending symptom of a raging epidemic must be placed under a benevolently committed, national microscope. Only then can we begin to heal the disgraceful wound that bleeds so lamentably during its ill-fated stop at “Fruitvale Station.”
“Fruitvale Station,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Ryan Coogler and stars Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer. Running time: 85 minutes
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