The video of Rodney King being brutally beaten in LA comes into view.That was nearly 25 years ago and the video shook the entire world.I saw it on a late night edition of The World This Week hosted by Prannoy Roy. Such footage is now disturbingly common with cellphone cameras.Maddeningly casual and brutal killings of blacks in America from time to time is nothing but a symptom of the deep-rooted problems of racism across the world. Cast, religious sects, religion itself, regionalism and even nationalism are used to divide people and vent hatred.In the 21st century rule of law is not all-pervasive, and even in developed countries the Trayvon Martins of the world are still ruthlessly shot down.
Fruitvale Station won both the Grand jury prize and Audience prize at Sundance.The film starts with real cellphone footage of a group of black young men being beaten at Fruitvale subway station in Oakland.Oscar is one of them. The film tells the story of Oscar in flashback tracing the events of the last day in his life. Oscar is shown to be a charming young black man but has his problems- he has been to prison, sells weed at times and is habitually unfaithful to his very pretty Latino wife. That during the entire film we are nervously waiting for the inevitable to happen owes both to Ryan Cooglers studied direction as well as our implicit understanding of the situation.
The strength of the film is its directness and its closeness to its characters.The shaky handheld camera is exactly the right choice here as is the rawness of the digital format which impart he film a documentary look.Undoubtedly the death of Trayvon Martin had a role to play in its success but the directors skill in telling this story cannot be disputed. At 85 minutes the film is just the right length, the truth is complicated yet simple enough when seen from only one angle.
Michael Jordan as Oscar is not as much a performance as an embodiment of a young black man aware of the contradictions within himself but always trying to forget the perils of simply being black in America.The white girl that he flirts with in a supermarket, making his grandmother give her a fried fish recipe, is the type of white folks who lull him into believing that all is well, when in fact, as his mother very well knows, he is navigating a minefield. Octavia Spencer as Oscars mother gives a careful performance,in one scene she checks if he is talking on headphones while driving. Melonie Diaz, as Sophina his girlfriend, and mother of his beloved daughter is convincing but is too pretty for my comfort, which means that Mr Coogler is indulging in some safe casting.
Fruitvale Station does not preach, it looks hard, intimately and admittedly sympathetically at its protagonist. Oscar is felled by probability, the chances that a young black man gets in America are slimmer and fewer than what a white man in his shoes would get.This film is based on the life of someone whose case did not become as famous as Rodney King and Treyvon Martin and therefore Mr Coogler takes the correct liberty of presenting Oscar as he deems fit to drive home his message.
What if on that fateful night Oscar had actually misbehaved? What if he was not as handsome and lovable as this film makes him out to be? That would have been a more interesting film.When we are able to garner sympathy for characters on film who do nothing to gain our sympathy we really moved forward.Till then very touching stories like this one are baby steps that we should continue to take.