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Oscar Grant, Witness for Trayvon Martin: "Fruitvale Station" review

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That crucial prison flashback mid-way through the film is extremely helpful in this area, especially when you think about it afterward. It helps us to realize what Oscar must have gone through while in prison -- he appears beaten up, and refuses to answer his mother's questions about it. When the Horowitch character threatens him in jail (which happens in plain view with guards watching) Oscar responds as if his very survival is at stake. This preps us to understand Oscar's instantaneous transformation when the same guy reappears much later and lunges at him -- how Oscar switches in one breath from holiday relaxation to fierce defense mode.

And earlier in the film, Coogler had included another exchange that also is part of the portrait of Oscar vis-a-vis aggression. So different from media sound bites regarding the Zimmerman trial, this scene illustrates what the concept of de-escalation and "retreat' might really mean. When his former boss tells him he won't give him his job back, Oscar is humiliated and desperate and reacts with an angry, ominous threat. The store manager happens to be Latino, and that moment could easily have become a racially-charged clash or power struggle. But the manager actually likes Oscar, continues to employ his brother, and, probably most important of all, understands where Oscar is coming from. He knows he's just upset. So he doesn't bite. The whole situation is defused, and Oscar calms down.

By contrast, Coogler clearly shows the BART police brutalizing Oscar and his friends from the moment they arrive. The cops seem to be trying to escalate the situation -- perhaps in part to create a cause for arrest. Indeed, Slate attests, witness statements from the subway passengers who watched the BART police's detention of Oscar and his friends affirm that police were hostile and physically abusive to the young black men. There are also witnesses who've testified that Oscar was co-operating with police as they started to arrest him.

Mehserle's excuse as to how he came to shoot Oscar is not even mentioned in Fruitvale Station until the postscript right before the credits -- Coogler doesn't dignify Mehserle's explanation with his attention, and leaves the exact thought process in Mehserle's head up to us to figure out. The depiction of the cacophony on the station platform is from the victim's point-of-view, which pushes the entire audience to imagine themselves on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality in a system where Driving While Black can be suspicious behavior. Coogler takes it one level further, by showing the trauma of Riding the Subway While Black. Sadly, when he began this project he may not have known there would soon be a national case where a 17-year old found guilty of Walking While Black would be retroactively given the death penalty. The film, by examining one specific case and one specific life so vividly, sets a paradigm with which to view many such cases and lives -- following in the footsteps of the Italian neo-realists, who knew that observing the small was a door to the enormous. Indeed, Coogler considers Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief one of his influences.


Movie still of Oscar Grant and daughter in by Weinstein Company

The astute Fruitvale Station is deceptively staid, employing the episodic, random-observations approach that Charles Burnett, renowned filmmaking pioneer from Watts and a 1960's UCLA film school grad, employed to profound effect in his cinema verite-style, classic dramatic feature Killer of Sheep. At the same time, Coogler's film holds a passionately-beating heart beneath its cool exterior. This incredible combination would be an impressive achievement from a seasoned pro, but Coogler just earned his filmmaking MFA from USC in 2011. And unlike so many, many film school grads, he's actually able to resist showing off camera pyrotechnics and fancy edits in his first feature. Instead, he very wisely just lets the actors act. He recognizes that he has a terrific cast, isn't afraid of them like some directors are, and together they work magic.


Fruitvale Station deserves to have the kind of impact Gus van Sant's Milk did five years ago. That film about the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and his 1978 assassination was honored with eight Academy Award nominations and trophies for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay . Not only were these plaudits well-deserved artistically, but they were cultural signs of progress for gay rights, and helped, simultaneously, to further advance the cause.

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It's worth remembering that Milk's assassin Dan White used a "Twinkie defense" successfully in court -- claiming he ate too many Twinkies, and that the sugar threw off his judgment. In the Oscar Grant case, it was the "Taser defense". The bizarreness of such explanations did not prove to be a deficit, and that seems almost certainly to be because these killers had fan clubs, in the general public and in the courtroom, who were searching for any semblance of an excuse to let them get away with it. Milk's murder was emblematic of a sickness within the culture -- rabid homophobia -- which was part of what made the story so important to revisit. Likewise, Oscar Grant's death and the multitude of tragic stories like his happening in Sanford, Florida and all over America are potent symbols of rampant racism, and it's of great import to the current spirit of activism opposing it that Coogler has made such a fine film affirming the rights of Oscar and his peers.

Fruitvale Station has the high quality, originality, topicality, fresh faces, and support of the awards-savvy Weinstein Brothers to make it a strong contender for a bunch of Academy Awards for its acting, writing, and directing (the media will love the cute headlines about Oscars for Oscar). It also stands a good chance of being embraced as an inspiration and an organizing tool by a burgeoning movement -- there have been street demonstrations every day since the Zimmerman verdict came out, with protesters often marching miles and miles, and some leaders are calling for a   "new civil rights movement" in the face of the demonization of Trayvon, the rash of Stand Your Ground laws, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the craze of voter I.D. requirements, New York's unconstitutional "stop-and-frisk" policy, and California prisons' human rights violations. Certainly the film would be an excellent consciousness-raiser for people of all races, and a great conversation-starter.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is a thread running through it which suggests that things really don't have to be this way. Oscar charms a young white woman he spots at a meat counter by calling up his grandma to give her a recipe; one of Oscar's longtime drug customers is a friendly Asian tough guy (which may be a conscious counterweight to the historical animosity between blacks and Koreans evident in the 1992 L.A. uprising); an immigrant shopkeeper kindly unlocks his store after hours to the youths' girlfriends; and Oscar and a white father-to-be meet for the first time on the street in San Francisco and end up bonding briefly over women, love, and how having your own family can change your life. Even more powerfully, on the train, the New Year's Eve revelers jammed in together start dancing to the music someone has brought. They are strangers, they are different races and even different sexual orientations, but they celebrate the coming of another year in a fleeting moment where the most obvious thing about them is their common humanity.

By shining a warm but very clear light on a life snatched away too soon, on a community so often overlooked or misrepresented, Coogler has demonstrated how rare it is for movies to actually be about real people and about the real, important things going on in America. Fruitvale Station shames Hollywood by setting a good example.

 

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)
 

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