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Film Review

Fruitvale Station

All of us, particularly in the Bay Area, were stunned by the accounts of the shooting of a young black man in Oakland by BART police on New Year's Day, 2009. Like the killing of Treyvon Martin in Florida, it confirmed that 21st Century America is far from a post racial society, despite a two term black president. Although blacks have made huge gains in education and housing there is so much further to go. Nearly one in every 15 black men is in jail, and an astonishing one in every 3 has been arrested, the great majority for drug offenses. This has had a huge impact on black culture, such as a real shortage of marriageable black men and fewer male role models for young black children. All too often the girl friends become single mothers, doomed to repeat the cycle. One quarter of our black population lives below the poverty level, and 16% are unemployed, double the rate of the white population. Escape from poverty is hard. It takes tremendous determination, mentoring or good parenting, help, and luck to break free. We (the upper middle class) often forget the enormous advantages we have had coming from intact homes, capable caring parents, adequate incomes, good schooling, good role models, etc. Very few of us can really imagine their struggle.

It's true that most white people, myself included, don't really know about the lives of poor and working class black people. We only seem to pay attention when we read of a crime or when we see a group of young black men acting out in public. But last week a powerful near documentary film, "Fruitvale Station", opened and gives us an intimate view of a 22 year old black man, Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a BART policeman after being detained and lying facedown on the BART platform. The film shows that last day of Oscar's life. Ryan Coogler wrote and directed, which remarkably is his first full length film. Coogler is black, grew up in Oakland, and was only 24 when he first began to research and write the screenplay. He was able to contact Oscar's family and friends, and interview them, so that the on film portrait of Oscar and the various incidents were as accurate as could be known. Forrest Whittaker, who read the script and was impressed, proved invaluable, with money from his production company and important contacts. The attempt by Coogler for accuracy and realism seem to label this film as a near documentary. Some question if a re-enactment can even be a near documentary. The goal of a documentary filmmaker is to convey truth and influence people. Short of archival footage, re-enactments seem as appropriate as having talking heads with narrative. We trust that the filmmaker accurately depicted the events and the subject, just as we trust the filmmaker in conventional documentaries.

"Fruitvale Station" begins with the now infamous cell phone video of Oscar Grant detained with three other young black men on the BART platform after a fight inside the car. So as the film goes back to the evening before, we already know the ending, yet the film becomes the more powerful with that knowledge. Oscar is presented with all his warts: he was fired from his grocery store job because of repeated lateness, he is impulsive, he dealt drugs, and he cheated on his girlfriend. Yet in addition to a troubled young man, we see someone trying to do the right thing, loving in many ways, trying to be a good son, a good partner, and a good father. His girlfriend, Sophina, has had his child, a lovely little girl, Tatiana. He loves and dotes on Tatiana and promises Sophina that he will remain faithful. Sophina is skeptical but loves him. But the most important figure in his life is his mother, who is played by Octavia Spencer ("The Help"). Her performance is simply breathtaking. The flashback scene of her visiting Oscar in San Quentin is amazing and as good as anything ever seen on screen. Clearly his mother is the anchor of the family, and today is her birthday. Coogler himself, in an interview, presents Oscar's mother as Oscar's past, his girl friend as his present, and his daughter as the future. Oscar deeply loves them all, and is determined to "make it". He sets up a meeting with a drug dealer to sell his stash of marijuana but at the last minute dumps it in the ocean, which seemed symbolic of his giving up a bad part of his past. An encounter with a lost dog, which is very poignant, is perhaps intended by the film maker as a metaphor. Apparently this is one of the few incidents invented by the filmmaker, which although powerful, wasn't really needed. Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire") plays Oscar, and not only resembles him physically, but gives a stunning very believable performance. It is impossible not to love Oscar and not to see his potential. Much of the film is shot with hand held cameras, which add to the realism. "Fruitvale Station" has already won two important prizes at Sundance and is sure to be an Oscar nominee. Running time is an all too brief 104 minutes.

Coogler has made a great film, an important and powerful work that should be seen by everyone. He shows us a complex person at a difficult time of his life, sustained by a great deal of love from all who know him. President Obama famously said that he could have been Treyvon Martin, but he could also have been Oscar Grant. Martin Luther King said "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." May it be so. The release of "Fruitvale Station" is very timely, and may help begin a much needed, frank national conversation about the state of race relations in America. I loved this film and it moved me greatly. Just opened at the Metreon (SF), the Grand Lake (Oakland), and the California (Berkeley).

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