Fruitvale Station (2013)
Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler
Extremely minor spoilers.
Basing a movie on a true story is a lot of responsibility. At least, in theory it is. In practice, facts are often handled willy-nilly—take for instance the movie Any Day Now, a film which, despite baring the ‘based on a true story’ badge, is near entirely made up. Fruitvale Station plays fast and loose with the facts too, but nowhere near as offensively—which is not to say that this movie didn’t offend me, just that it offended me for other reasons.
I have nothing against the melding of fact and fiction in art. The result can be beautiful—look no further than The Girl Next Door, the book and the movie. What Jack Ketchum was able to do with the horrific, real life story of the death by torture of Sylvia Likens is nothing short of alchemy. It is one of the greatest works of American fiction, and one of the greatest American horror movies of all time—and is so because Ketchum was able to imbue the story with plenty of heart-pounding metaphor.
There are no metaphors to be found in Fruitvale Station. I mean sure, there’s stuff like a random pitbull, which, according to the filmmaker, represents ‘what it’s like to be a black man’—but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s mere substitution—‘metaphor’ in name only. Real metaphor unlocks something previously locked in all of us. It makes a connection that expands our consciousness—whereas, if anything, the goal of Fruitvale Station is for our consciousness to contract.
Ryan Coogler is an inexperienced filmmaker—and I mean that without a shred of insult. That’s just a fact, one I’m sure he would agree with. This is his first feature-length film, writing or directing, and with it, he bit off a lot to chew. Who is he to undertake the intensely complicated task of figuring out what the murder of Oscar Grant ‘means’, and distilling that to less than 90 minutes? If he had set out to make a documentary, and brought together experts and thinkers and witnesses, maybe he’d have a chance. But a drama? Fuck that’s hard.
That this film works at all is quite impressive. It’s got moments, I’ll give it that. Michael B. Jordan is a compelling actor, and when he’s allowed to simply be, we can’t help but be charmed by his presence. Had this movie been focused more on honest, poignant moments such as the one where he sneaks his daughter an extra pack of fruit snacks, or goes the extra mile while helping a customer at work, it really could have been something, and said something, about what makes a man’s life memorable in this world. That could’ve been its message, and would’ve sufficed just fine for an 85 minute movie.
Instead, it tried to be too many different things. We’ve got a mumblecore-esque opening scene, followed immediately by the introduction of a video game-esque texting overlay motif which serves no purpose other than cool factor, followed by cute kid stuff, followed by a rap-scored driving montage, followed by cute grocery story stuff, followed by random, angry grocery store stuff, followed by jail thug-melodrama stuff, etcetera, all the way up to a Crash-esque climax. There’s way more instances of shifts than that—those are just the ones that come immediately to mind—but you get the point.
At the end of the film, we are left bewildered by its poor script—and then they try and trick us into thinking that the bewilderment we feel is over injustice. This is done through a pre-end credits sequence providing us vague, lazy, day-before-it’s-due school essay-ish details on the murder of Oscar Grant III and its aftermath. I immediately checked out the Wikipedia for the case, and learned a lot of interesting information that I didn’t learn from the movie or its coda—in fact, I’d argue that the classic phrase, ‘the book is better than the movie’ should be updated to ‘the Wiki page is better than the based-on-a true-story movie’.
It’s hard to see this film as anything more than a mere cash grab. A film like this can be produced very cheaply, and is just about sure to make its money back, if made for the right amount, because it can ride the interest of the real life case. It’s also critic-proof. As smart as some professional critics like to think they are, there really is a formula to tricking them into liking something—if you can get them to feel as though a good review from them would be them doing their part for a ‘cause’ they agree with, they will look the other way when it comes to glaring flaws such as rookie screenwriting mistakes (Fruitvale Station Drinking Game: drink every time a scene is twice as long as it should be). Most important of all though, it’s awards bait—in the age of Tyler Perry, a movie with a predominantly black cast simply has to not be laughably bad in order to be heralded as an important achievement in black cinema (except in the case of Lee Daniels—The Butler and Precious are unintentionally hilarious, yet fawned over).
Perhaps the must frustrating aspect of all when it comes to this film though, is that this piece of art is a man’s eulogy. He deserves better. It’s not just that this eulogy of sorts is poorly-delivered, but that it doesn’t appear to be designed to bring us even a modicum of peace, clarity, or wisdom. If you are upset about what happened to Oscar Grant III, you will feel that same way after watching this, almost as though you were crying and then someone came over and consoled you, but sucked at it—and also took your ten dollars. Hollywood hucksterism, in the guise of a hug.
We don’t need this movie, like we don’t need the proverbial extra special, super-duper expensive casket for the funeral of the one we love.
Fuck you, Fruitvale Station.
1 1/2 out of 5 Codys.