Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb…
The recent UK release of Fruitvale Station has inevitably provoked conversation on this side of the Atlantic, whereby re-reading articles from last year only seems to blur lines further:
“Hoping to stir the public, though, the film dances around the facts. Its first problem is how to handle its 22-year-old subject [Oscar Grant III] … flaws are depicted in the film, but nevertheless “Fruitvale Station,” a debut effort from young filmmaker Ryan Coogler, tries to fit a halo on its subject, seemingly to play up the audience’s sympathies.”
Read the full article by Kyle Smith, from July 2013, here.
Following the release, it does seem that clarity over the “truth” about the events is somewhat hazy. Finding a video of the phone footage at Fruitvale Station on YouTube reveals a CNN video that stresses the “fictionalised account” of the story in the film. When we are observing a film that tackles such recent events, we have to be aware of the sensitivity necessary when considering all parties involved – including Oscar Grant’s family and the family of the convicted police officer, Johannes Mehserle.
For the record, fictionalised elements of the film include a sequence whereby a dog is ran over and Oscar carries him off the road and pleads for help. This scene clearly foreshadows his own death whereby he wasn’t given the same dignity. Though this artistic license may add to our sympathies towards Oscar, I don’t believe these creative choices deter from the bigger issues that director Ryan Coogler is attempting to address.
All films are fiction aren’t they? Anything in front of the lens of a camera has already changed its form by the time we seem the footage ourselves. Re-enactments cannot be an exact reproduction of events and editing means the selection and removal of moments that, poetic or not, are part of the truth.
In the wake of Elliot Rodgers Isla Vista killing, I re-watched Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Though I agree with many of his political opinions, when I first viewed the film, something felt false. It seems that the use of footage to support his argument was less than honest. For example, he used footage from a popular, well-attended gun-rally as voice-over dictates a gun-rally was held shortly after the Columbine shootings. The implication is that this loud, passionate pro-gun crowd is in Columbine weeks after the shooting – in fact, the footage is from a different rally and the one held was a very small affair.
Though playing a little loose with the facts, I still agree with his intentions and understand his argument clearly enough. I may have my own opinion on his skills as a documentarian, but this does not take aware the reality of gun-crime, the ease of access to guns and the consequence of such a cultural expectation. When I walk into a cinema, I believe all films are fact and fiction. I’m not naïve enough to go into any film and believe it is the hard and fast ‘truth’. There are always different sides to the story.
With regards to Fruitvale Station, The facts are that an unarmed African-American was shot by a police officer. He was a father. He was a son. He was an ex-con. Ryan Coogler’s film deftly captures the challenges that face a young man, like Oscar, in society. In Sight and Sound, reviewer Ashley Clark writes how “it would still make a fine, and all too rare, slice of black-focused low-key drama in its own right”, even without “its tragic narrative bookends”. Wider issues regarding the difficulties in going ‘straight’ after prison as he struggles to maintain a job is all too-real for ex-cons. Regaining others trust when you hold a complicated, criminal past. There is a clear lack of support for a man who wants to support his family, but lacks the education (hence his position in retail) to hold down a position. Understandably, at 22, perhaps his anger is not a key-issue – but surely this is a manifestation of the frustration amongst many young men in poverty.
Of course, with events so recent, it is important to handle them sensitively – and in light of the George Zimmerman trial that coincided with the US release of Fruitvale Station last year, this film needed to be careful. Indeed, United 93 was held to account for the less-heroic (but more human) actions of Christian Adams, who is depicted as a “stereotypically weak-kneed Euro-pacifist”, optimistically hoping for the event to simply blow-over. A conversation regarding the heroic Americans versus the less-heroic German is for a different time, but this more human characteristic of one passenger surely outweighs an automatic assumption that everyone fought back. And, in the same manner, while the conversation between Oscar and his daughter seems fraught with tension as we know she will never see him again, there is truth in this blunt, emotional scene: Oscar did have a final conversation with his daughter. As Michael B. Jordan says himself in this weeks Guardian, “What’s so unrealistic and manipulative about a black man loving his daughter, and having real, emotional moments with his family?”. Rather than argue about the facts, we need to reflect on the larger issues that are raised about inequality, institutionalised racism and the lack of support for ex-cons who cannot reintegrate into society – because these men have sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.
Ryan Coogler chooses to show little of the cop who pulled the trigger, renamed in Fruitvale Station as “Officer Ingram”. He tactfully portrays another officer who is openly hostile and who consequently creates a situation that need-not happen. The shooter himself (played by Chad Michael Murray, which I didn’t even notice) is purposefully ambiguous – the taser-mistake, I can accept, could be true. But the issue in these final moments is the automatic aggression towards the group from police officers. Going back to the initial video footage, this explosive relationship between the two groups remains to be a truth too complicated to be summarised in a single film – but it is the issue Fruitvale Station raises that we need to confront.
Simon Columb (Follow him on Twitter @screeninsight)