written and directed by Ryan Coogler
starring Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
On January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a BART police officer on the platform of Fruitvale Station in Oakland. Despite numerous witness accounts and cellphone video footage, it isn’t clear precisely what precipitated the shooting. What is clear is that the police, responding to reports of a fight on the train, had pulled off several young men, including Grant, and were attempting to arrest Grant, and that Grant was on the ground and unarmed when he was shot in the back. The officer who shot him testified that he had mistaken his gun for his taser. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years in prison.
It’s not hard to see why this incident led to blowback, protests and riots, and blowback to the blowback. The BART police insisted that Grant had been resisting arrest, while other witnesses claimed that one of the police officers had been the chief aggressor. Grant’s character came under scrutiny, with friends and family mourning him as a devoted son and father to a 4-year-old girl. But he had also been in and out of prison for various crimes, including drug dealing, and was on parole when he was killed, although none of the officers on the scene were aware of his record at the time. All of this back-and-forth should sound painfully familiar to a country still dealing with the fallout from the death of Trayvon Martin; and by some cosmically uncanny timing, “Fruitvale Station,” a film about the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, comes to theaters the very same weekend that the man who shot Trayvon was acquitted.
Yet director Ryan Coogler, who makes a superb feature-length debut with “Fruitvale Station,” isn’t interested in polemics. While he does show the crucial shooting scene and the lead-up, he’s less concerned with assigning blame for the death than with trying to bring the man Oscar to life: not as a martyr or as a hoodlum, but as a human being who was trying to take charge of his existence when it was cut off so abruptly. And in so doing, he offers a nuanced, quietly affecting portrait of a deeply flawed young man who still nonetheless had potential to become his best self—potential that he would never get the chance to realize.
As played by the charismatic and ubertalented Michael B. Jordan (who also starred in the cult hit “Chronicle” but whom TV viewers will most likely recognize from “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” and/or “Parenthood”), Oscar emerges as an engaging, warm-hearted guy who loves his little daughter, girlfriend, and mother, but is also hot-tempered and prone to infidelity, small-time crime, and lies to cover up his fuck-ups, like being fired from his job at a local grocery store and concealing the fact from his loved ones. The movie, which is partly fictionalized, partly drawn from real-life accounts, follows Oscar over the course of his New Year’s Eve, which for him is mostly just an ordinary day: he reads to his daughter, argues with and tries to placate his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz, very good), who suspects him of cheating on her and returning to his drug-dealing ways, tries unsuccessfully to get his job back, buys ingredients for his mother’s birthday dinner, decides whether or not to sell his stash of weed, and finally, heads out to San Francisco to celebrate the new year with his friends. “Take the train,” his mother (Octavia Spencer) advises him, and the rest is history. If Coogler has any agenda in chronicling Oscar’s last day, it’s to suggest that he really was trying to turn his life around when he died—a theme the film hammers home, perhaps unnecessarily, with flashbacks to Oscar’s last stint in prison. Would he have actually stayed on the straight and narrow had he lived? Perhaps not; the point is we’ll never know.
The final few scenes of the movie are particularly compelling, as Coogler shows how the festive New Year’s Eve mood aboard the train suddenly and senselessly disintegrates into chaos, and presents, without comment, the immediate targeting of Oscar and his friends—all young, black males—by the police, the blur of angry exchanges between them, and the half-confused, half-outraged reaction of the crowd. By the time the fateful shot rings out the tension has risen to an almost unbearable point, as knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t ease the dread of waiting for it. It does, however, make the grim aftermath, and the sight of Oscar’s family and friends waiting and praying in the emergency room, especially heartbreaking. Again, Coogler doesn’t pile on any extra drama or editorial commentary, and he doesn’t have to; the tragedy speaks for itself.
THE BLING RING
directed by Sofia Coppola
starring Emma Watson, Katie Cheng, Israel Broussard, Leslie Mann
Sofia Coppola brings her impressionistic eye to the strange-but-true story of a group of teenagers in Los Angeles who snuck into the homes of various Hollywood celebrities, stole millions of dollars worth of clothes, jewelry, and other possessions…and made absolutely no effort to cover their tracks. In fact, they flaunted
their ill-gotten gains—wore them, talked about them, and posted on social media about them—and were eventually busted for them. And, judging from the film, they never stopped to think about whether what they were doing was wrong or stupid.
It’s easy to see why Coppola was interested in the story: the kind of culture that created these kids is her particular area of expertise. But she’s more detached than usual in her approach to her protagonists, leading one to wonder whether she has any sympathy at all for them. Most of them don’t seem to warrant any, although one of them (played by Israel Broussard), the only male and the one to show anything resembling regret, offers some intriguing hints at hidden, deeper-seated issues that might explain his involvement in the ring. Coppola treads very lightly here, however—perhaps too lightly—and characteristically focuses more—perhaps too much—on the materiality of the stolen goods, the brand names and association with celebrity that are like drugs to the thieves. She also makes a point of highlighting the incredible shamelessness and egotism of these teens (particularly the aspiring starlet played by Emma Watson, who ends up viewing her arrest and trial as a P.R. opportunity) and suggests that inept or inattentive parenting may be at least partly to blame. But in the end, she doesn’t draw any moral conclusions. She gives us plenty of reason to wonder, little to weep.
Reviews coming soon