Fruitvale Station (2013)
Written & Directed by Ryan Coogler
On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant was on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train with his girlfriend and their friends returning home to Oakland after an evening of celebration. A prisoner who served time with Grant recognized him on the train, and a fight broke out. The train was stopped and Grant and several other men, but not the prison acquaintance, was pulled off. A tense argument ensued with the transit police which escalated to Grant being pinned to the floor, a knee driven into the back of his neck. As he was pinned an officer pulled his firearm and shot Grant in the back. The wounded man would be taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead later that morning. The officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to two years, but was released after less than a year served.
When the credits rolled I thought it, but my wife said it, “I wish this had been a documentary instead.” This is only my second Ryan Coogler film, the first being Black Panther, and I have to say I just don’t get it. He’s a competent filmmaker, the shots aren’t bad, and he knows what he wants to make. When I compare him to other contemporary black male filmmakers: Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins most prominently, I noticed a significant lack of something: style. Coogler’s work doesn’t have a tone or feel to it; everything feels very surface level and technical. McQueen and Jenkins tackle similar themes about black masculinity in their work yet can do so with a visually distinct and appealing palette.
There is a sense that Coogler was trying to tell the story of Oscar Grant as a mix of character study and visual poem; I would argue he fails at producing the work he likely intended. I sat down ready to be emotionally moved by the story of Oscar Grant’s murder and at its conclusion, I just felt neutral. I shouldn’t have been, this should have a been a heartbreaking movie, but some obstacles created a distance between myself as an audience member the events unfolding on screen.
The aspect that rubbed the wrong the way were some of the acting choices. The dialogue and performances never helped me lose myself in this world and the story. I was always hyper-aware that these were actors delivering their lines. Michael B. Jordan came the closest to feeling like he was inhabiting the character but never wholly. Because of the stilted and artificial nature of the performances when slang was dropped it felt extremely rough. I didn’t believe these were Oscar and his family once. You can tell that Coogler was aiming for realism; the shooting incident is filmed using the cell phone footage to frame each moment.
I think one of two different style choices would have helped. First, more improvisational dialogue between Oscar and his family would have grounded the story. Allowing the actors to spend time together on set, get to know each other, and then film lots of scenes that could be trimmed in editing to show moments where everyone clicked, and the words flowed naturally. The other stylistic choice could have been to lean into the poetic aspects of the story and broader ideas embedded in this incident, delve deeply into the psyche and emotions of Oscar. This would have allowed an excellent depth for relationship building, quick tightly written and abstracted flashbacks that establish the bonds between Oscar and his family. You could have still had the subtleties that Coogler wanted but also produced a film with a richer emotional connection between the audience and its vital story.
Fruitvale Station is light years better than the avalanche of race films helmed by white directors (I’m looking your way Green Book), but my tastes would always lead me towards film work with a more stylistic touch like the aforementioned McQueen and Jenkins. I have one more Coogler film on my list of potential bests of the 2010s list to watch this year: Creed. It has two things against it as this point: I have never enjoyed sports films, and Coogler’s work thus far has left me very cold. Still ready to be surprised, however.