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Flawed humanity of a police shooting martyr


Fruitvale Station. Director: Ryan Coogler. Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ariana Neal. 85 minutes

A world famous drag queen is reunited with his conservative mother after decades of estrangement in the documentary I Am Divine. A Korean orphan dreams of his biological mother and ruminates on his strained relationship with his (Belgian) adoptive mother in the animated memoir Approved for Adoption. A woman goes to great lengths to protect her adult son, after he accidentally kills a child with his car in the drama Child's Pose.

Sometimes at film festivals, connections emerge between what at first appear to be utterly dissimilar films. All of the films I have seen so far at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival have been concerned, substantially if not centrally, with the relationship between mothers and their sons. All reveal the bond to be both singularly resilient and highly susceptible to fate and human foibles.

This is evoked most powerfully in Fruitvale Station. The film is a dramatised account of the last day in the life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot dead by police in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009, in Oakland, California. The death of this young, unarmed African-American man sparked protests and riots, and renewed tensions around race and fraught debates about police training and procedure.

Fruitvale Station though is largely divorced from this politicised context. First-time director Coogler has said he wanted to give an account of these events that got beyond headlines to humanity. 'When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something,' Coogler told the New York Times. His film builds a portrait of Grant's decidedly flawed humanity via snapshots of the intimate relationships that populate his life.

Grant's death was captured by camera phone; a fact that all but assured his status as a martyr for the cause against racial violence. Coogler's film opens with this footage before flashing back to the previous morning. Mobile phone technology is a central motif throughout the film; phone calls, and text messages which flash up on the screen, provide forensic signposts to the events of Grant's day.

This underpins the film's documentary style, but the focus on communication is also a focus on relationships. Grant calls his mother Wanda (Spencer) for her birthday, and she chides him for talking on his phone while driving; he is both a caring son, and cared for. He sends a text message to his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) to invite her to lunch, and is disappointed to learn that she has already eaten; their relationship is lately strained, but essentially loving.

Jordan plays Grant as a man seeking redemption for the mistakes of his past, though his approach is not always commendable. Recently unemployed, he goes to plead for his job, but in his desperation ends up threatening his former employer. Later, we are given an extended flashback of a past experience of prison, in which Wanda pleads with Grant to turn his life around; back in the present day, we see him dispose of drugs that he'd intended to sell.

Wanda and Sophina, along with Grant and Sophina's young daughter Tatiana (Neal), are at the heart of this quest for redemption. But the film is full of foreboding that never lets us forget how this hopeful day will end. Spooked by New Years Eve firecrackers, Tatiana tells her father she is frightened of the 'guns'. 'You're safe inside,' he tells her. 'But what about you daddy?' He is about to catch a train into the city, and does not know he will never return.

A review in Variety described the portrayal of Grant as 'relentlessly positive'. 'Generally positive' would be more accurate. Fruitvale's Grant is certainly not perfect. In both the supermarket scene and the prison flashback we glimpse the incipient violence that is in him. This contrasts with the pure and adoring affection he shares with Tatiana, and the more robust love he shares with Wanda, which has been tested by past events and survived.

That Tatiana loses a father, and Wanda a son, is the film's ultimate tragedy. The prison encounter ended with Wanda walking away from her son — a gesture of tough love that clearly hurt her as much as it did him — while he wailed at her to come back and hug him. In the film's closing moments, it is Wanda who pines to hug her dead son one last time. She feels she has failed to protect him. Even martyrs are human — and so are their mothers.



Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Fruitvale Station will screen once more at MIFF, and should receive a broader theatrical release later this year.

Topic tags: Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant, Ryan Coogler, police violence, Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Divine



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim for this review of what sounds like a well-made and important film; I like your suggestion of a thematic link between 'Fruitvale Station' and other films in the Melbourne International Film Festival. I wish I could be part of the audience, but your reviews offer a glimpse into what I'm missing.

Myrna T | 01 August 2013  

very fine writing...thanks

Eugene | 01 August 2013  

Great review Tim. I had the opportunity to see this film with my husband last week. A very moving and powerful story.

Nic | 02 August 2013  

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