Ryan Coogler’s film actually premiered at the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah in 2013. Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award it failed to make it’s way across the Atlantic on its own and so the Sundance Institute brought it over for Sundance London 2014.
Fruitvale station deals with the shooting of Oscar Grant III who was killed by a police officer on the 1st January 2009. The film chronicles his last 24 hours. While institutional racism and police brutality are always hot cultural issues it seems more than serendipitous that the film was released in the States a mere two weeks after the controversial Zimmerman trial, a case which also dealt with a debatably racially-motivated shooting.
Coogler’s film is undoubtedly beautiful to watch, featuring some good old-fashioned 16mm film and trademark grain. It’s as romanticised as an image of a girl in raybans dancing in the sunset. Many of the events in the film are, as one would expect, completely fictionalised and they paint Oscar Grant as a loving, reformed, family man. A good glaze of nostalgia and forgiveness is thrown over such incidents as him cheating on his long-term girlfriend and mother of his daughter, his past arrest for owning illegal firearms and his violent and threatening behaviour towards a former employer and his involvement in drug dealing.
What is achieved by giving us a candy-coated hero in place of the real man? No one should ever be shot illegally by a police officer. The presentation of the victim as largely an all round good guy is designed to tug at the heartstrings. As a result the film starts to feel like a protest campaign, demanding justice for Oscar Grant III and further demonisation of the police force.
Coogler wants to open a dialogue about this incident but ignores one of the main issues – the appallingly widespread use of firearms. It’s a far less palatable and fashionable discussion, but in tackling real-life events some degree of respect for the facts must be present. The verdict reached on the Grant case, like the Zimmerman trial after it, does not imprison the shooter for murder. Coogler suggests that this is an unjust and racist verdict, despite the official plea being that Mehserle, the officer in question, mistook his pistol for his Tazer, and the testimonies of eye-witnesses that Mehserle said he was about to Tazer Grant moments before he fired the shot. Surely justice for Oscar Grant III would be to question why it is that a transport police officer was armed with a pistol in the first place? It would have been daring and revolutionary to question the culture that allows the possibility of a tazer and gun being confused and to result in such accidents. However Coogler ignores this issue, focuses on the now familiar theme of the perpetually oppressed, and appears to cry racism. Interestingly, in Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant III is shown as a well rounded human, the kind of man who saves dying dogs, loves his young daughter and throws away a bag of weed in a symbolic act of the reformed character. The casting of Michael B. Jordan as Grant is accurate and sympathetic. However Mehserle, who is of German descent, but has dark hair and eyes, is cast as a pale, blonde blue eyed man quite unlike his real-life appearance. If anyone is guilty of negative racial stereotyping it is the director.
It’s a difficult film. It’s beautiful, enjoyable and flawlessly realised. Technically I cannot fault it and as I watched it I was pulled along on this wave of emotion. As time goes by I find myself more and more disturbed by the blatant emotional manipulation employed so skilfully to promote a troubling ideology. Not all victims are martyrs and not all police are racist thugs but unfortunately these tropes are becoming all too acceptable in our media.
- Entertainment: 3/5
- Artistic: 5/5
- Intellectual: 2/5