Arthur Abeshouse, Date 6/14/17
Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is a bold act of imagination and compassion, reconstructing the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man who, in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, was shot dead by a police officer on a train station platform in Oakland, California. The shooting happened at point-blank range, while Grant was unarmed, handcuffed and lying face-down. The police had been called after a reported rowdy incident on a train; jumpy, aggressive cops appeared to haul the suspects out of the carriage, and Grant was shot by an officer who later claimed he intended to pull out his Taser, not his handgun. Many people filmed the incident on their mobile phones, and the online footage sparked an outcry compounded by an enraged feeling that digital video is proving something that has been happening for decades. The resulting movie is a tough and moving drama about African-American lives: a film to be compared with Ken Loach and perhaps Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep or Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man. Michael B Jordan is sensitive and intelligent in the role of Grant; Melonie Diaz is his girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer gives a quietly moving performance as Grant's mother, Wanda. So who was Oscar Grant? Not an angel, that's for sure. Like Rodney King, another brutality victim caught on video, he was flawed. Grant turns out to have had a police record, and the movie shows him as an ex-convict, a drug dealer, and a guy who cheated on his girlfriend, the mother of his child. But it also shows him as someone who was making attempts to reform himself. Coogler accepts at face value these assurances, and there are some fictionally invented or conflated episodes – or at any rate, episodes for which there was no eyewitness evidence showing Grant in a good light. Yet, I am baffled at some of the brow-furrowing US press coverage suggesting he has been romanticized here, as if only cynicism were dramatically valid or plausible. Oscar Grant was, at all events, a private citizen who did not deserve to be shot dead in cold blood. The film becomes overtly political at the end, showing the subsequent civil-rights campaign (for me, this part did not need to be emphasized). Yet what is so potent about Grant's story, moment by moment, is its apolitical, or non-political aspect. There is something almost spiritual in the eerie importance that all the ordinary, banal facts of a life achieve under scrutiny, as time is running out. Every phone conversation, every encounter, every argument, every silly or fleeting thought; everything assumes a new mysteriously vivid quality, an occult focus, as the shadow of death falls across it. Grant is a guy whose New Year's resolution is to clean up his act – because he has just been mortifyingly caught cheating by Sophina, who is contemptuous of Grant's mumbling claims that this was the only time he had strayed. It was just the only time he'd been caught, she snaps. This shrewd truth-telling chimes, in my view, with the political rage at the end of the movie. Coogler's camera tracks Grant's final day as he roams about, buying a birthday card for his mum, talking to his brother, taking a difficult call from his sister, setting up an abortive drug deal, getting bad news about his job, picking his girlfriend up from work and finally parking his daughter with the sitter and getting ready to take the train into San Francisco with Sophina and his friends to watch the new year fireworks. The movie follows Grant in what amounts to dramatic real time – but with one expertly positioned flashback to a traumatic period in his life, and a highly charged conversation with his mother: a confrontation whose painful repercussions continue right up to the film's final moments. It ends with some tough love on Wanda's part and is, arguably, the first real wake-up call in Grant's life the second being the discovery of his sexual indiscretion. Perhaps poor Oscar Grant really was on the verge of turning his life around, and perhaps not. Coogler's film gives him the benefit of the doubt the film-making equivalent, perhaps, of a presumption of innocence.