Emotional resonance. That, and an unprecedented topical relevance, are two big reasons why the Oscar Grant movie “Fruitvale Station” is off to a great start. As Variety reported, it had the highest per-screen average of any film this past weekend, selling out every single showing at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. The film’s numbers may have been boosted by the media attention around the George Zimmerman trial, which ended just as the film was opening, in an eerie case of synchronicity. But strong word of mouth and excellent reviews from top critics hasn’t hurt, either.
“Fruitvale Station” may well end up being one of the best-reviewed films in recent memory; on July 14, three days after it opened in NY, LA, and Oakland, 56 of the 62 reviews listed on RottenTomatoes.com were positive, a 90% rating. To put that in perspective, the movie was higher-reviewed than every other single movie in the top ten box office the week of its release.
Many of the positive reviews touched on similar themes: the humanization of Oscar Grant’s maligned, misunderstood character; the cinema verite-like aspects of the film; the poignant performance by Michael B. Jordan in the lead role; and the effective first-time direction by Ryan Coogler.
“The emotional impact of “Fruitvale Station” cannot be overstated,” writes Joe Neumaier of the NY Daily News. “What’s emotionally compelling about the film is that Coogler manages to get the audience involved,” notes Wilson Morales of BlackFilm.com. “The movie is modest in its ambition and powerful in its reverberations,” adds Mick La Salle of the SF Chronicle. Cole Smithey, of Cole Smithey.com, calls the film “a cautionary reminder of how predictably unpredictable law enforcement officers in America are.”
One of the most salient comments, by Film.com’s Amanda Mae Meyncke, seems as applicable to real life as it is to cinema:“It’s truly remarkable how much prejudice can slip into our assessment of facts, how much bias can control our thoughts and distract us from discovering the truth of a matter.”
While most of “Fruitvale Station”‘s fictionalized scenes don’t particularly advance the movie’s plot, they do speak to the larger context of the real world, addressing societal perceptions, biases, and prejudgments in an honest, non-preachy, way. This is important, because the subtext of the movie is the huge elephant in the room: racial profiling.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to examine the dissenting opinions of the few critics who weren’t moved by the film—which may say more about them than the film itself. It’s curious, to say the least, that the New York Post’s Kyle Smith identifies Grant in the first sentence of his review, as a “22 year-old black drug dealer” – it’s unclear why he felt compelled to write that, but the line reads much different from Slate critic Dana Stevens’ description of the film’s subject as “a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant.“ Further into the review, Smith slides down the slippery slope of dubious social commentary, attempting to justify Grant’s murder, and declaring “the shooting wasn’t a racist one.”
Another reviewer— Bill Weber at the ironically-named Slant magazine—manages to work the phrase “drug-related” into his first sentence. Weber takes offense at the film’s approach to race as “familiar and ham-fisted,” and finds the depiction of a “utopian” New Year’s countdown on a BART train “too warmly generic.” Yet the diverse revelers—described by Weber as a “pan-racial throng including white hipsters and a black lesbian couple” —aren’t incongruous with what one anyone who’s ever ridden through the Transbay Tube on NYE might actually see.
Weber also has a bone to pick with the film’s emphasis on Grant’s relationship with his daughter. “Doting on that theme doesn’t speak to the larger issue of why he died,” he grouses. Yet it could be argued that a greater poignancy is achieved by leaving this unaddressed. After all, the role of film as a medium of communication isn’t necessarily to answer questions, but to raise them.
Some reviewers apparently saw a completely different film. Variety’s Geoff Berkshire, for instance, complains that the movie’s “relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject” rings “false,” and that the film “forgoes nuanced drama for heart-tugging, head-shaking and rabble-rousing.” Berkshire goes on to proclaim that the movie “mostly functions to further the transformation of a flesh-and-blood man into an unintentional martyr.”
However, LA Weekly/Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek makes the exact opposite point: “The idea isn’t to turn Oscar Grant into a martyr; it’s simply to shrink the distance between him and us.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times echoes Zacharek’s sentiment, opining, “The radicalism of “Fruitvale Station” lies precisely here, in its refusal to turn a man into a symbol.” The LA Times’ Kenneth Turan had similar thoughts: “What makes “Fruitvale” so effective is its determination to do justice to all aspects of Grant’s character, to resist the temptation to view him as anything other than the full, flawed human being we see on-screen.”
Berkshire’s accusation of “rabble-rousing” is ironic, in light of fellow reviewer Scott Tobias’ comment that “the film doesn’t get into the aftermath of the Fruitvale shooting” – which, presumably, would have incorporated scenes of the rallies, uprisings, and protests which followed Grant’s death and the DA’s initial reluctance to charge Johannes Mehserle with a crime. In actuality, Coogler intentionally avoids agitprop, though that door was certainly open. The director clearly could have pursued an overt social justice/activist agenda, but decided not to, perhaps realizing that making the film the way he did was a social/political statement in and of itself.
Tobias makes another claim which seems ill-informed, that the film “lays the ironies on thick, as when Grant’s mother, ever concerned for his safety, advises him to take public transportation rather than drive home after a night of revelry. “ The utter and absolute irony of this statement is that this episode actually happened in real life.
A more valid point of criticism is the insertion of fictionalized scenes, as noted by several reviewers. In Berkshire’s mind, “there’s no need to stack the deck with scenes of Grant tending to a stray dog injured in a hit-and-run, phoning his grandma to help a stranger decide what kind of fish to fry for her boyfriend, and convincing a grouchy store owner to re-open his establishment so two women can use the bathroom.”
These scenes “rack up the selfless brownie points,” Hitfix.com’s Guy Lodge says. Which comes at the expense of “[minimizing] Grant’s criminal record,” remarks the Dickensian-named Stephen Whitty at the Newark Star-Ledger. Like Smith and Weber, Whitty appears to be upset that Grant is portrayed as a sympathetic character. Whitty also argues the film is “frustrating” because it doesn’t include Johannes Mehserle’s announcement that he planned to tase Grant before shooting him.
Although the overwhelming majority of film critics are white–of the 62 reviews of “Fruitvale Station” on Rotten Tomatoes as of July 14, only one is by an African American–the film isn’t intended for white audiences only.
That said, if we’re going to nit-pick, let’s be objective: Coogler not only leaves out Marysol Domenici–whose taunting to the tune of Lil Wayne’s “Lady Cop” may have provoked her then-boyfriend, officer Tony Pirone, into overzealous behavior—from the story altogether, but also omits Mehserle’s statement to a fellow officer which appeared to indicate he knowingly fired his handgun (which was ruled inadmissible in court), and his revealing comment to Pirone immediately after the shooting, “Tony, I thought he had a gun.”
In fairness to Coogler, to insert every single line of dialogue uttered the night of Grant’s murder verbatim would have been a tedious exercise. Furthermore, Grant’s legal troubles are indeed referenced in a jail flashback—quite possibly the movie’s strongest-acted scene—the only non-sequential episode in the narrative.
Though the movie has a quasi-documentary feel, it’s not just a simple re-enactment of real-life events. The cinematic construct of “Fruitvale Station” is that it compresses a man’s entire life into a 24-hour span. Within that construct, there is a need to extrapolate the rest of Grant’s 22 years, to get a sense of his essential character. While most of the fictionalized scenes don’t particularly advance the movie’s plot, they do speak to the larger context of the real world, addressing societal perceptions, biases, and prejudgments in an honest, non-preachy, way. This is important, because the subtext of the movie is the huge elephant in the room: racial profiling.
One thing that Coogler didn’t change was the fact that only black people are pulled off the train, though the fight which presaged Grant’s detainment and thus, his death, reportedly involved both blacks and whites. Yet this historically-accurate detail escapes Smith, Weber, and Whitty’s notice.
The scenes with Ahna O’Neal as Kate, a young white female who befriends Grant at a grocery store (shot at Farmer Joe’s, where Grant once worked) and later shouts him out on the fateful BART train, are critical to getting across Coogler’s main point: fear, particularly fear of the unknown, drives prejudice, and can lead to sudden, deadly, and irrevocable consequences. We need look no further than the Trayvon Martin case to see the continued relevance of this theme.
A far more critical decision—and one most reviewers have overlooked—is the one to fictionalize Grant’s murderer. Mehserle and Pirone are depicted as a composite character, who’s shown pulling Grant off the train, exchanging epithets with him, and then shooting him. By not giving this character–played with sneering menace by Kevin Durand–a backstory, Coogler mythologizes him as a bogeyman, a killer who haunts the nightmares of black families all across America.
Yet this isn’t stereotyping so much as illustrating a reality shared by the families of Grant, Martin, Alan Blueford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sean Bell, and countless others. If anything, it counters the all-too-familiar Hollywood cliché of the hero cop. The rendering of the antagonist is so subtly done, it doesn’t take the focus away from Jordan’s Grant—a brilliant directorial move on Coogler’s part.
Questions of whether the film would have been stronger had it been built around a parallel storyline of Grant and Mehserle’s actions leading up to their fateful encounter—which would have brought it more in line with a typical Hollywood narrative–or whether the omission of the aftermath of the shooting downplays its impact, are largely academic. That’s because what the movie does do—transform a man whose face we recognize but whose life we knew little about into a person with both flaws and strengths that audiences can relate to—is ultimately more powerful.