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'Fruitvale Station' review: Only a small portion of the story

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

July 18, 2013

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** (out of four)

Four and a half years ago, something terrible happened involving cops and a group of 20-somethings at a train station in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are many worthwhile questions to ask in terms of why this event occurred.

The disappointing, Sundance award-winning drama “Fruitvale Station,” however, strives only for an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. It converts a controversial and upsetting incident into a headline and, at times, an imperfect person into a shining martyr. This is a dangerous approach, and it can be argued that it’s the same attitude that turned protests into riots and questions about culpability into calls for vengeance. It’s also a film that says people make mistakes and deserve to be understood but doesn’t extend that to everyone involved.

The always-effective Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) stars as 22-year-old Oscar Grant, though the way the film presents him his name may as well be, “Troubled Young Man Attempting to Get His Life Together.” He’s an ex-con who begs and fails to get his grocery store job back but strives to spend the last day of the year with Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his child, and celebrate his mom’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. “Fruitvale” also shows how he spent that day a year before, locked up in San Quentin and arguing with a white inmate.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler (who should be ashamed of his exploitative final shot) takes numerous “Crash”-like opportunities to depict broadly cultural gaps between blacks and whites without recognizing progress or the institutional problems that lead to the climactic incident. It’s fair to comment on cultural differences and people who are under-represented; Oscar’s sister asks him to pick up a birthday card for their mom and make sure to buy one with black faces on it. But that’s a lot different than a film that ultimately depicts a real, racially charged situation without saying more than, 'This is an awful thing that happened.' Which it is. But the subject demands a lot more--at least a sense of if this tragedy stemmed from bigotry or human error and what to do about it.

It’s just one indication of a lack of understanding in the filmmaking, not the society it captures. During a RedEye interview, Coogler astonishingly demonstrated virtually no clue as to why the event he documented on film took place. To use a term Oscar favors: That’s not cool, bruh.
 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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