Tuesday, 5 November 2013


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Anyone who thought the election of a black president would be a cure-all for America's racial issues had high hopes and a small grasp of reality; 200 years of racial inequality was never going to be healed in one term (or two) let alone overnight. Less than two months after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and just weeks before his 2009 inauguration, Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by Bay Area transit police.

The death of the 22-year-old -- a father, son, and partner -- could easily be dismissed as 'wrong place, wrong time' but it was quite clearly the direct result of racial profiling: an incident on a train; a black man (Grant) described as a suspect; and white officers with itchy trigger fingers.

But writer-director Ryan Coogler's debut feature isn't about this miscarriage of justice or the subsequent outrage (though it will enrage you); Fruitvale Station is a 'life in the day of' film where that life, tragically cut short, is made even more meaningful by the hope and promise exhibited.

A young man with an ex-con past, Oscar Grant has decided it's high time he straightened up and flew right; if not for himself than for his partner, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). And also for his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), the woman who raised him and whose tough love you suspect got him as far as 22.

New Year's Eve also happens to be Wanda's birthday, and before heading into the city that night to ring the New Year in, Oscar spends his day running errands for his mother in preparation for her celebratory dinner whilst also trying to convince his ex-employer to give him back his supermarket job (which Sophina and Wanda don't know he has lost).

Over the course of the day, Oscar crosses paths with friends and acquaintances, his old life and his new, as he contemplates his past and the direction his future should take. The film's strongest scenes are those depicting Oscar with his loved ones: playing with his daughter; bedroom confessionals with Sophina; the birthday dinner for Wanda where an unforced warmth exudes from the screen.

Some reviews have suggested that the portrayal of Oscar Grant is rather too beatific; that he's depicted as too much of a saint while his criminal past is glossed over. But the film flashes back to Oscar's incarceration and his angry young man phase. And in the present, what Coogler and Jordan (in a warm yet guarded performance) have given us is a man struggling to do what's right and best for his family when the temptation to do what is easy -- to fall back in to his drug-peddling ways -- is so strong.

Interestingly, Fruitvale Station is the second film in the space of a week that deals with the issue of race in America. Lee Daniels' The Butler (released here last week) looks at the American Civil Rights movement, from the 1950s through to 2008, coincidentally ending with the election of Barack Obama.

Fruitvale Station (and other real life cases, like that of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot and killed by a white man, and which was ludicrously resolved in court earlier this year in the assailant's favour) proves that, as far as America may have come with regards to race, there's still a ways to go.

On a purely artistic level, it's encouraging to see two American films about black people by black filmmakers. That can only be a good thing (the same goes for their release in Australia). And with Steve McQueen's slavery drama, 12 Years A Slave, to come in the next few months, the conversation about race in America -- its past, present and future -- is only going to become louder.

For now though, marvel at Ryan Coogler's impressive debut whilst being saddened and angered by the story it tells and the life lost.

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