Bearing a Very Bitter Fruit:
I discovered something pretty unpleasant about myself yesterday. Oh, it was nothing like the fact that I can be very critical of other people’s shortcomings—despite having been graced with so very many, myself. Nor was it that I have a bad tongue in my head when I’m in a foul mood about something.
It was something much simpler and much worse: put bluntly, it seems that I can find it easier to empathise with a disposable character in a low-budget horror film than I can with the death of an innocent young black man, shot in a stupid, ugly, pointless incident and—worse again—one that was taken from recent life.
Ryan Coogler’s debut as a writer and director, Fruitvale Station, begins with footage from the killing on the first day of January, 2009, of Oscar Grant. It then goes back to the previous day in order to show us how this 22-year-old man spent his last hours. Well, how it is approximated that he spent them. This is of course the unavoidable part of that phrase ‘based on a true story’ that we just have to take at face value.
Oscar (an excellent, charismatic Michael B. Jordan) is, we find out very quickly, a bit of a charmer. As the film opens it is obvious that he has been cheating—probably on a regular basis—on his girlfriend and mother of his young daughter. He is also keeping from her the fact that he lost his job two weeks previously.
Here we see his naiveté—or let’s be kind and call it a young man’s optimism—coming into play. He seems to be in no doubt that a chat with his very reasonable ex-boss will get him reinstated, despite the fact that he is told bluntly that someone who can actually keep time has already been taken on in his place.
I suspect that good old Oscar would get on my nerves very fast, but it’s also here that we see that he is a kind young fella: when a customer at the fish counter is in difficulties concerning a fried fish dish that she is making, Oscar phones up his grandmother and hands the phone over whilst that lady instructs the young woman on how to cook it. There appears to be no ulterior motive, despite some harmless flirting, and Oscar goes off to sit and recall the time that he has spent in jail, breaking his mother’s heart in the process.
There’s no doubt that Oscar is trying to get his life back on track and that he is a good and loving father; but I’m sorry: there was very little in his life that I could relate to personally.
In the last twenty minutes we see Oscar and his friends, who are simply making the best of being stuck on the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transport System, being thuggishly rounded up by some out-of-control cops. It is the entire premise of the film that we will be led up to the moment when he is senselessly—and I mean utterly senselessly—shot dead. So I am giving nothing away. The cop who does it is charged with manslaughter, is sentenced to two years and serves eleven months.
I get it. It was an appalling act and I’m reasonably sure that if Oscar hadn’t been black then he would have been alive today. But I felt manipulated throughout. Because Oscar is so likeable; because we feel for his long-suffering mother; because he has an adorable kid; because the officer who instigates the incident (although he doesn’t pull the trigger) is so brutishly over the top that yes, we are screaming ‘police brutality’ at the screen. Because of all this I felt that I was being taken by the hand and patronized.
Octavia Spencer is a pleasure as Wanda, the mother. Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, who loves him despite her constant disappointments. Kevin Durand is simply monstrous as Officer Caruso. And it is obvious that we’ll be hearing more from director/writer Ryan Googler who brings the film in at a tight hour and twenty-five minutes.
I wanted to like it more than I did; but to tell you the truth I’m not even sure that I’m buying all of it. Again, sorry. That’s just the way I feel.