The Films of 2013: Fruitvale Station

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Ryan Coogler’s new film Fruitvale Station takes place on the last day in the life of its main character, Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed during an altercation with a subway security guard in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.  In his death, Grant—who was twenty-two, black, and struggling to get back on his feet after a prison term for dealing drugs—has, like Rodney King before him, become a symbol for black victimization at the hands of a police force felt by many to be motivated by racism and blood lust.  The film opens on the morning of December 31, 2008, as Grant drops his daughter off at pre-school and picks up food for his mother’s birthday party that evening.  It ends in a hospital waiting room the following morning, as doctors deliver the news of his death to his mother and girlfriend.

There is an undeniably affecting force to Oscar’s story, and it’s devastating to watch as a day filled with frustration but also joy and hope, represented by the familial closeness of the birthday party and the more raucous New Year’s Eve revelry that follows, suddenly plunges into the stuff of a nightmare.  It seems impossible that any thinking, feeling person could not to be moved by the final act of this film, in which we’re invited to reflect on a life, and those of countless other poor young black men, seen as valueless in the eyes of many white Americans.  Yet Fruitvale Station’s reluctance to make this or any point more overt leaves it feeling somewhat coy.  We’re given the details of a gripping story, the full significance of which never really gets brought out, in part because the filmmakers seem reluctant to make the claim that race was a motivating factor in Grant’s death.  By not emphasizing this key context, the film becomes nothing more or less than the tragic story of a young man’s untimely death.  If we leave the theater claiming to know what the film is trying to say about race or racialized violence in a larger sense, it’s because we’ve filled in the gaps with whatever knowledge we already had, not because it has made it clear to us.  Put somewhat differently: the film doesn’t tell its audience—which, given that it’s playing the art-house circuit, is likely to be well-educated liberals—anything that they probably don’t already know.

If the movie isn’t exactly deft at handling the ideas it deals with, though, its actors do a remarkably good job giving a sense of real, lived experience.  Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Grant, the centerpiece of the film, is naturalistic and understated, and will likely be remembered come Academy Awards season.  (I think that Octavia Spencer, playing his mother, is even better.)  But I most appreciated the ensemble-driven moments in the film when Coogler seems to let his actors play.  In those two scenes of celebration—the family birthday party, in which everybody crowds into the kitchen to talk, cook, and laugh, and a later scene in which midnight strikes while Oscar and his friends are on the subway, and the whole train car erupts into an impromptu New Year’s dance party—there’s a spontaneity and a messiness to the action and the performances that feels truly thrilling.

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