There is a narrative technique used a lot lately, primarily in television. The episode opens with a big showdown, guns drawn, or in the middle of a big, dramatic moment, the characters arguing with one another, and just as the moment reaches its climax, a title card pops up and we move backward in time: “72 hours earlier”, “5 Days Ago…” The writers and director want to grab our attention and the true beginning of the story is static or less interesting, so they give us a preview of the climax to grab our attention.
I find it to be kind of a cop-out; the writers and director are creating the story, this universe. If it doesn’t have a natural hook, fix it.
In “Fruitvale Station”, first-time director Ryan Coogler’s new film starring Michael P. Jordan as Oscar Grant III, the film begins in a similar fashion. Coogler shows us actual cell phone footage of the incident that happened on New Year’s Eve at the BART Station. We watch the grainy footage, horrified to see the event happening to and because of real people. But I think Coogler’s motives for showing us this footage are different; sure, he wants to grab our attention, but he also wants to give us proof that this event actually happened. Because it seems so incredulous that a young man could be killed. In such a way. As recently as four years ago.
There may be some people out there who still can’t believe this type of thing can happen – some people still believe the Holocaust never happened. But this movie was also released the weekend before the George Zimmerman verdict was issued. When something like this happens, the events depicted in the film seem even more real, senseless and heartbreaking. And the hope that something like this could never happen shrinks even more.
After we watch the video footage, we join Oscar (Jordan) on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 2008. He wakes up next to his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), feeling frisky. But before anything happens, their daughter, Thatiana (Ariana Neal) comes in and wants to sleep with them. When they wake up, we watch them get ready for the day, make preparations for Oscar’s mom’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday party that evening, make plans to go out and celebrate the New Year holiday later that evening. Soon, Sophina is at work and Oscar drives around trying to make some order, some sense of his life. He stops at Farmer Joe’s and tries to talk his boss into giving him his job back. Oscar wants and needs to change his ways, to become the responsible adult his family needs. But old rivalries surface during his New Year’s Eve celebration.
This is Ryan Coogler’s first film and this is evident in both good and bad ways. Because he is new to this, there seems to be less emphasis on hitting plot points at studio-recognized intervals, allowing the story to flow in a more natural way. This gives us the opportunity to go along for the ride, literally, with Oscar as he meanders around, trying to create a new persona for himself. There are dramatic plot points throughout his story, but they seem less Hollywood, less forced than most and help give us a sense of this young man’s life.
Because this is Coogler’s first film, he doesn’t have the experience to self-edit and falls victim to a few overly dramatic moments that serve to draw us out of the narrative. The most obnoxious is a moment when Oscar stops to get gas. As he is standing at the pump, a stray dog is hit by another car. Oscar runs to the dog’s side and comforts him as he dies. Unfortunately, this scene really hammers home, in a none-too subtle fashion, what the rest of the film does so well. Most of the film paints a believable, subtle portrait of Oscar as a well-meaning young man, not without his problems, who is trying to put his life together, when he falls victim to a stupid, senseless shooting. Oscar’s humanity is illustrated by his attempts to comfort the dog in his dying moments. And the dog’s senseless death foreshadows Oscar’s final moments at the Fruitvale BART Station. This moment isn’t needed and its obvious message makes it stand out like a sore thumb.
Michael P. Jordan is an actor who will become a major star. He has appeared in a number of film and television projects, earning impressive critiques for his work. Until now, most of the great reviews have been for his work in television – “Friday Night Lights”, “Parenthood” – but that is changing with this new film. This is the type of performance that can earn a relatively unknown actor an Oscar nomination and set him on a course to make some big-budget studio mistakes (Both Coogler and Jordan are close to signing on for “Creed”, a “Rocky” re-boot being marshaled by Stallone when he isn’t working on “The Expendables III”) before they get their career on track and start earning critical notices again.
Riding around with Oscar all day gives us the opportunity to really become a part of his life, to see his decision-making process and to see how these decisions affect his life. As Oscar drives around, Jordan makes the character believable by just letting him be. Oscar stops by Farmer Joe’s to accomplish a few things; he needs to get some crabs for his mom’s birthday dinner and he needs his job back. He visits with a former co-worker, flirts with a female customer and then pleads with his former boss, trying to convince him he has changed, he will do better. Much of Oscar’s life involves this sort of give and take, good and bad, nothing is a straight-forward moment.
Octavia Spencer plays Wanda, Oscar’s mom. She has a few short scenes but the impact of her influence on her son’s life is clear; he calls her while driving and she immediately admonishes him for using a cell phone in his car. This is a small, but believable moment; we can each hear our mom admonishing us for doing the same thing.
Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of their child. Her performance is the equal of Jordan’s in many ways. She is interacting with her boyfriend; someone she loves and cares for, but who also frustrates her. This young couple is, in many ways, both more and less mature than other people their age; they have been through some problems, helping them gain a certain maturity, but they are still young and prone to making mistakes. Watching these moments unfold in ‘real time’ helps us to become a part of their lives.
Everything is the film is designed to lead us to the inevitable moment at the end of the film. Remember, we have already watched real found footage of Oscar’s last moments on the BART platform in East Oakland. Watching the cell phone recording first thing has amped us up, made us anticipate the final moments even more. Because Coogler has already shown us the most important part of the film, our anticipation heightens the drama of the moment, making it more memorable and more powerful.
“Fruitvale Station” is a very good, very raw, very powerful look at a distinct low point in our recent history. Unfortunately, we seem to continue to have these, letting history repeat itself again…