NEW YORK -- Unlike their TV counterparts, scripted movies that try to parallel news events, especially crime-based ones, tend to fall flat. If a film in this vein is done well it can still seem like little more than a network procedural. If it’s done badly it can seem phony or forced. We have documentaries for this sort of thing.
But that rule doesn't apply to “Fruitvale Station,” the Sundance Film Festival phenomenon that arrives in theaters on Friday (after a TV campaign that, oddly, plays more to the universal idea of second chances than to the story that became a Civil Rights cause célèbre.)
Written and directed by the now-27-year-old wunderkind Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale” tells of the last day in the life of the all-too-real Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Oakland man who on New Year’s 2009 was killed at the hand of a BART police officer despite being unarmed and having committed no crime. As you may recall, the film won both top jury and audience prizes at Sundance and made a filmmaking star out of Coogler, while also thrusting its young and previously little-known actors, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz, into the limelight.
I watched the movie for the second time at the New York premiere on Monday, with an audience of tastemakers as well as filmmaker friends and family. Some of the early criticisms — that Coogler pushes some easy emotional buttons — were apparent, but for the most part the movie packed the same punch as it did when I joined the tissue-pulling Sundance crowds back in January. (Interestingly, when my colleague Amy Kaufman asked Jordan about the fact that this film is based on real events but scripted, he replied, "Somebody asked me how would you feel if this movie was done as a documentary. [And] I don’t think it would reach the masses as much as it has. It’s too real. They’re getting something that they don’t realize they’re getting. Hide the medicine in the food.")
As depicted in the film, Grant was complicated and at times irresponsible, but ultimately a sweet and caring person who, like many his age, had made some mistakes but was beginning to figure it all out. He deserved a chance to see what he could do with his growing maturity. His tragic fate was a racial injustice, to be sure, but it was also a sin against the beautiful idea that a young person has the freedom to learn from their mistakes.The feeling in the theater Monday was a charged one, and understandably so. There’s something about the easygoing rhythms of a man going about his day — playing with his young daughter, trying to win back a job — colliding with the harsh reality of violent injustice that strikes at the soul. (Real-life footage tacked on from a 2013 memorial-protest only enhances the effect.)
But the movie also resonated for a different reason. As the film hits theaters, the Trayvon Martin case is continuing to play out on cable news. Like so many of us, I’m following only the outlines of the trial of George Zimmerman. I haven't gotten to know the day-to-day life of Martin the way one gets to know Grant in this film. And the circumstances of the Martin shooting are of course in some key ways different from that of the Grant shooting, a subject for another post.
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But the similarities in the overall circumstances are unmistakable, and when I flipped on CNN the day after the screening, I couldn’t help hearing in Martin’s story pieces of Grant’s tale — a very public civil rights case overlaying the private lives of a family dealing with the inexplicable loss of a young loved one.
The Weinstein Co., which is releasing “Fruitvale,” isn’t going out of its way to emphasize the connection in its marketing — betting, probably correctly, that it could give the film an eat-your-vegetables feel. But such parallels are unavoidable. Harvey Weinstein, never one to shy away in his speech from how one of his movies sheds light on a news event, noted as much at the premiere. “With the trial going on,” he said, alluding presumably to the Martin case, “this movie is so important. It’s about justice and injustice.”
Audiences who come out to see the film will ride down a kind of two-way street of fact-based moviegoing. "Fruitvale" might help them understand the Martin case. Or the Martin case might make them yearn to learn more about the events described in "Fruitvale." After all, Coogler's film is the kind that gnaws at your soul, even if it’s not ripped from the headlines.
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