Fruitvale StationNovember 9, 2013
“Based on a true story” is a claim that confers a special moral distinction on a movie. We are not talking about the fantasy adventures of James Bond or Superman, or some frivolous rom com. The film we have chosen to watch is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If only.
I’m swiftly coming to the conclusion that “based on a true story” is the most misleading phrase in the publicist’s repertoire. Nothing could sound so straight, so lacking in hyperbole, but the truth is more elusive than we imagine. The Butler is based on a true story, but bathed in a fog of sentimentality. Fruitvale Station avoids all the Hollywood trimmings but takes far greater liberties in its search for ‘truth’.
This first feature by young American director, Ryan Coogler, traces a day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old black man, who lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco. It is New Year’s Eve and Oscar is reflecting on his life. He has cheated on his partner, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), done time in prison, and disappointed his family. Today he has lost his job in a supermarket for consistently turning up late
Oscar’s life is a mess, but hardly exceptional. His advantage is that he has a supportive family and an especially strong relationship with his mother, (Octavia Spencer). He is also a devoted father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal). On this day of resolutions, Oscar decides to be a better man, but his good intentions are undone later that night when he is caught up in a brawl on a subway train, and hauled onto the platform with a group of friends. While Oscar is lying face-down and handcuffed, a police officer pulls out a gun and shoots him.
We know the shooting is coming throughout the entire film, so I’m not giving anything away. The case of Oscar Grant became a cause célèbre in the United States in the early months of 2009. The policeman who pulled the trigger was indicted for murder, convicted and given a two year sentence, which was eventually reduced to eleven months. There is now an ongoing campaign demanding justice be done.
This is the bare outine of Oscar’s story. By choosing to focus on his protagonist’s last day on earth, Coogler has the makings of a modernist odyssey. One thinks of Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses; or Malcolm Lowrie’s Under the Volcano, (filmed by John Huston) where the drunken Geoffrey Firmin is also moving inexorably towards his death.
The style of Fruitvale Station is spare and undramatic. Much of Oscar’s day is ordinary to the point of boredom, making his final, violent encounter seem all the more shocking. It is the specific details of this day that makes one feel increasingly uneasy. Oscar Grant is not simply a small-time hood who wants to change his ways, he is a saint. In the supermarket, trying to get his job back, he helps a white lady who doesn’t know how to do a fish fry by calling up his granny on the mobile.
Later he looks after a friendly pit bull (yes, pit bull) that gets hit by a car. Even though he is broke he empties a bag of dope in the sea rather than sell it, keeping a little something to give to a friend for no charge. Oscar can’t do enough to help his long-suffering mum. He even does the dishes. He is a loving, ideal father who always has time to play with Tatiana.
As the list of good deeds accumulates one begins to wonder how much of this “true story” is simply the invention of the director. It’s no surprise to find the pit bull and the bag of dope emptied into the ocean are both fabrications. With such revelations one can only be sceptical about every other aspect of Oscar’s spotless, admirable existence.
The shooting scene is imbued with a sense of suspense that shows Coogler has the makings of a talented filmmaker, but it never makes sense. The officer who fired the gun claimed he was reaching for a Taser and made a terrible mistake. That seems an entirely credible explanation, although it could still be argued that the prison sentence was manifestly too light, even for an accidental murderer. It’s hard to believe even the most hot-tempered racist would murder someone on a platform in full view of a train full of people filming the incident on their cell phones.
By the end of the film we feel we have been subjected to a piece of propaganda, not so different from those Chinese revolutionary movies in which the peasants and workers are heroes and secular saints. Our sympathies for Oscar are undermined by the sense of having been emotionally manipulated. Although this story is presented as a social justice issue, it’s more a matter of epistemology. For it’s a strange truth that has to be supported by a tissue of lies.
USA, rated M
Written & directed by Ryan Coogler; starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz Octavia Spencer
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9 November, 2013.