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Depressing ‘Fruitvale Station’ has some problems

By Gary Clift

The new cinematic recreation “Fruitvale Station” presents those interested in movies with a couple of major problems. One is that the based-on-a-true-story plot itself is grindingly depressing. When a stray dog appears and the story’s central character, Oscar, steps away from a filling station to pet it, that dog will be dead before the scene is over. It’s that sort of movie.

Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, is a twenty-two year-old ex-con living in Oakland, California, in 2008. The movie, written and directed by recent film-school graduate Ryan Coogler, tells what happens on the last day of Oscar’s life, December 31.

He awakens in a perfectly ordinary lower-middle class house with his girlfriend and their small daughter. It is his own mother’s birthday, and Oscar and Sophina make some plans associated with the celebration scheduled for supper time.

He drops his daughter off at a private day-care center when Sophina goes off to work. Then he spends the rest of his day fuming over his own actions—he has recently lost his job at a food market, for example—driving around town, and making friends.

At the market he helps a young woman who is trying to buy what she needs to cook fish for her beau. He promises to help his sister, who needs $300 for rent. And so on.

He is on good terms with his family, and he speaks on the phone with his mother (Olivia Spencer) and his grandmother. Later on when he and Sophina join some of his friends to go to a commercial district for late evening fireworks, they leave their daughter with her sister. He makes friends at the evening location, too, including one fellow who admits he started his business on the proceeds of a theft.

This is a signal business for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are no witnesses to the conversation, so it is one event (of many) Coogler has fabricated for the film. Why would this stranger make this extraordinary admission to Oscar? What is the filmmaker revealing about his understanding of the world? Does he want us to see that Oscar’s criminal acts are not really all that bad?

What is Coogler suggesting by killing the dog?Oscar is the other living being that dies in the film. How are the two deaths alike? I struggled to understand the comparison.

Oscar’s mother is against drunk driving. She has asked her son to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit train into town for the festivities so that he won’t have to drive home after having had some alcohol. Oscar agrees, and he, Sophina, and his pals are on a train on the way home when the girl who needed help cooking fish sees him and speaks to him.

When his name is called, he is recognized by a thug in the car, someone with a grudge, and there is a brief scuffle. Worried that this may lead to trouble with law enforcers, Oscar and his pals scatter at the next train platform, but our point of view character and three of his pals are detained by out-numbered “transit police” who call for back-up and make the young men kneel on the cement.

These events we actually know from video records shot by real-life by-standers: there is some arguing between Oscar and the cops; Oscar is hand-cuffed; and then Oscar is shot at close range by a late-arriving cop. Then the film ends in cliché: all gathered at the emergency room and then on-screen titles (and documentary film) mentioning the legal results of the death and the resulting protests.

But there’s the second problem “Fruitvale Station” gives moviegoers. What are the protests about? That this likable kid was shot, without much cause, and killed by a law enforcement officer who then received a sentence many think too light?

No. There seems to be a racial element in this. But the film hasn’t really been about race. Up to a point, Oscar’s problems have been self-made. He is African-American, and he is shot by a white man, but the movie does nothing to show that race figured in the events.

So how do I recommend this film? It is depressing as all get out. It ends with a lamentation about racism that seems ritual rather than arising naturally from the events. And those are the main facts about “Fruitvale Station.”

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