Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not politically correct to criticize this movie, yet it seems only fair to treat it as I do every other movie on which I comment. If that sounds like a bashing is coming, you are mistaken. In fact, this is an emotionally-charged, well written and exceptionally well-acted movie that provides much anticipation for the future projects of its first time director Ryan Coogler. However, in my opinion, it is also flawed in its “Based on a True Story” placard that is then followed by much manipulation (3 Oprah references), some of which could even be considered misleading.
If you are unfamiliar with the tragic story, 22 year old Oscar Grant was inexplicably shot and killed (while subdued and face down) by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop after watching New Year’s Eve fireworks with his girlfriend and buddies. An altercation/fight occurred on the train and the officers pulled Grant aside to detain/arrest. Much of this was caught on cell phone video by train passengers, and the aftermath brought protests in the city. The officer was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser.
No one can argue that this was anything but a senseless tragedy. Director Coogler even begins his movie with actual cell phone footage of the incident. The ending is known and seared in the viewer’s mind before the story even begins. Whether the senseless shooting was racially driven is a topic for debate, but the current media focus on the George Zimmerman trial, and his killing of Trayvon Martin, makes the timing of this movie quite compelling.
Coogler certainly points out that Grant (adeptly played by Michael B Jordan) was no angel. We learn about his prison stints, his drug dealing, his unfaithfulness to his girlfriend (the mother of his daughter), his lack of responsibility (losing his job due to chronic absence), his string of lies, and most glaringly … his terrifyingly quick and violent temper. My issue with the film is the seemingly inordinate amount of time Coogler spends on the flip side — the focus on Oscar’s desire to get his life back on track. So much effort and so many scenes are written to exhibit how Oscar is a charming guy with a big heart. He helps out a white lady in the grocery store, he takes a big step towards leaving the drug dealing life, he plans his mother’s birthday party, heck … he even cradles a poor dog that was hit by a car. This inequity in storytelling apparently has only one purpose … to create another symbol of racial injustice. We are not left to ponder if the real Oscar is the one who inspires his daughter to brush her teeth or the one who bows up to a foul-mouthed convict, rather than ignore him. Instead, Coogler wants us to believe that Oscar was now a good guy who had put his past behind him … all in the 24 hours leading up to his death.
The fact is, there are two sides of Oscar, just like everyone has multiple facets to their personality. Most of us learn to control the sides that don’t mesh well with society … others really struggle to do so. Michael B Jordan delivers a powerful performance as Oscar, and he and Octavia Spencer (who plays his mom) will both garner awards attention. Other supporting work is provided by Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his precious daughter, Ahna O’Reilly as the shopper, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the BART cops.
This film was the hit of both Sundance and Cannes, and was produced by Forest Whitaker. A major tip of the cap to BART for allowing the filmmakers to work on location at the actual Fruitvale station, for a level of authenticity. Coogler chooses one last bit of manipulation with his closing video of Oscar’s daughter Tatiana at a recent memorial outside of Fruitvale station … followed by on screen text of the officer’s two year sentence. We get no details on the trial, only the assumption that the sentence does not deliver justice, but rather another example of racial bias.
Lastly I’ll say that the decision to make a dramatization rather than a documentary was interesting. This allowed the director to focus on Oscar the good guy. A documentary would have required facts from the trial, a better perspective of the train disturbance and probably fewer Oprah references. The dramatization makes the movie more emotionally charged and more effective at inspiring outrage, rather than debate. Despite all of that, this is extraordinary filmmaking from a first time director, and I will certainly look forward to Ryan Coogler’s next project.
**NOTE: An interesting take on the real life events that led Oscar to this moment, could have been an analysis of the many decisions he made in his short life. Parents are always trying make their kids understand that every decision and every choice has a consequence. What if Oscar had never dealt drugs or gone to prison? The altercation on the train would not have occurred and the tragedy would have been avoided. I am by no means blaming Oscar for what happened that night, it’s just another example of how even the smallest decisions add up to impact our life.
Rather than post the trailer to the film, I have elected instead to post a 1:42 YouTube video of the actual incident, The video is short but contains very harsh language and you can hear the gun shot. It is not easy to watch and certainly not appropriate for kids