June 28, 2013

Michael B. Jordan Leaves Me Slack-Jawed In FRUITVALE STATION

"Dark butter."
Films have the power to inspire us, to frighten us, to make us laugh and to make us cry.  But perhaps the loftiest, most noble goal of any film should be to start real conversations.  If the Director's Q&A I sat through is any indication, Fruitvale Station is the kind if movie that's going to get a lot of people talking.

At approximately 2:15 AM on New Year's Eve 2009, an unarmed 22 year old black man named Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back while being restrained face down by police officers (plural) on a San Francisco train platform.  The shooter, white officer Johannes Mehserle, said that he accidentally mistook his gun for his taser.   The incident was captured on cellphone video by multiple witnesses and immediately went viral, sparking nationwide outrage and mourning, particularly in the black community.  This is the kind of thing that happens all too often in an America which continues to treat African Americans as somehow less deserving of our attention and protection under the law.  And if you think that's an exaggeration, you need only look at Tuesday's implosion of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court and the laws enacted by the state of Texas a mere two hours later.

Fruitvale Station, named for the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station where Oscar was killed, is a haunting film by freshman writer/director Ryan Coogler that is anchored by a career-making performance by Michael B. Jordan, best known for his work on TV's Friday Night Lights and The Wire as well as Josh Trank's found footage superhero film Chronicle.  Coogler, a Bay Area native himself, starts the film with the actual cell phone video of Oscar Grant's tragic death, and then immediately rewinds approximately 24 hours, taking us through the events of Oscar's last day on Earth.  Oscar spends the majority of his time with the three women in his life: his mother Wanda, his girlfriend Sophina and his daughter Tatiana who, in the words of Coogler, "each represent a different part of Oscar...his past, his present and his future."  Oscar is a good son and a loving father, someone who's trying to lift himself up and do right by the people who love and support him, but it's a real struggle.  He wants to stop dealing but there aren't a lot of opportunities out there for a young black man with a prison record and a quick temper.  But Oscar comes from a strong family and he's got a beautiful and precocious daughter, so there's plenty of positive influences in his life to keep him upbeat.  Coogler wisely injects plenty of love and humor throughout the film, so that the audience quickly invests in Oscar emotionally even though we know there's a guillotine hanging over his head the whole time.  Coogler also utilizes a really clever method of text messaging, with a translucent blue display appearing in the corner of the frame that almost feels like a reflection of an actual phone screen, showing each name in Oscar's contacts scroll by and words being spelled out one letter at a time.  (Oscar uses a flip phone without a qwerty keyboard, which makes these text interactions feel quaintly dated.)  It's much more creative than just cutting away to the actual phone, but there's something wonderfully tangible about it that feels authentic to the environment.  As much as I love the slicker methods adopted by shows like BBC's Sherlock, it would feel incredibly out of place here.

You can tell that Coogler has an deep empathy for Oscar's final journey.  There's a heartbreaking scene early on in the film where Oscar encounters a stray pit bull at a gas station and then watches as it's run down in the street by a driver who doesn't even bother to stop.  The dog dies there in his arms, blood pouring out of its mouth onto the concrete; the image is upsetting on its own but when viewed through the lens of the film's climax it's downright horrific.  It's one of few scenes in the movie that's completely fictionalized, (actually based on something that happened to Coogler's brother) but the real Oscar was a big dog lover so it felt true to the character even if it never really took place.  More importantly, it serves as a chilling metaphor for the experience of a young black man in San Francisco.  The pit bull is a popular breed in the area and one that's often associated with the imagery of gangsters and rappers.  But while pit bulls are widely regarded as violent, dangerous animals they are in fact extremely friendly and lovable creatures who will fight back when provoked.  The same could be said about Oscar Grant.

It would be easy to portray Oscar as a complete innocent, but instead Michael B. Jordan gives us an incredibly complex, multi-layered individual, the kind of performance that quite simply demands your attention.  His Oscar is constantly pulled in multiple directions and seems to instantly morph into a completely different person depending on the situation.  He's equal parts charm and menace, with both a kind heart and steely reserve.  He's a guy who will call his grandmother to help a middle-class white girl at the grocery store prepare for a fish fry and two minutes later is threatening his former boss when he refuses to hire Oscar back.  Jordan underscores these dramatic mood shifts with subtle physical work - you can see his entire body tense when faced with a confrontation and then immediately shrug it off when the threat has passed.  And for all his tough guy bravado, Oscar is also truly kind and thoughtful, willing to give up his last $10 so a store owner will let his girlfriend use his bathroom after closing and then instantly flagging the owner down again when a pregnant stranger wanders by.  Jordan's characters from FNL and Chronicle certainly echo the different sides of Oscar Grant, but it's the way he effortlessly slips from one persona to the other that is so riveting.  This is the kind of performance that will rightfully put Jordan at the top of every casting list in town and I expect that the Weinsteins will make a pretty strong push for him come awards season.  It's easy to see why Josh Trank would want to work with him again on The Fantastic Four and despite the quasi-racist fears of short-sighted fanboys and moronic internet commenters, we should all be so lucky if the stars align and Jordan ends up as the next Johnny Storm.

The film ends with a title card saying that officer Mehserle (played here by an unrecognizable Chad Michael Murray) was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and later released after serving 11 months of a two year sentence.  This prompted an audible and visceral reaction from the audience, a scenario I expect will be often repeated when the film is released nationwide on July 26th.  But while the film will rightly inspire a lot of righteous anger and frustration, I hope it will also inspire compassion.  Because no matter what convenient storylines and broad characterizations the media rushes to latch onto in these situations, it's important to remember that at the heart of every incident like this are real people.  Oscar Grant was equal parts saint and sinner, as was the officer who shot him.  (Coogler smartly chooses to reinforce Mehserle's claim that he reached for the wrong weapon, as signaled by the look of instant horror on Murray's face when the gun goes off.)  We are all wonderfully flawed human beings and we all encounter tragedy at some point in our lives.  It's how we deal with the consequences that matters most.  We can either become calcified and cynical, giving in to our worst selves, or we can learn to accept our differences and work together to build the world we wish to see.

Or, as Ryan Coogler said, "It's about humanity...how we treat the people who we love the most and the people who we don't know."

Title: Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner Theater (IFFB Advanced Screening)

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