african american cinema

The Beauty of Fibbing, Fiction, and ‘Fruitvale Station’

betcom_fruitvale_station_trailer__tmbRyan Coogler understands fiction.

He’s a master of atmosphere, and a composer of visual harmony. He does what only the most skilled of directors can: he simply takes reality and makes it art.

You can re-interpret, re-envision, and re-invent other media. What that does, however, is make you the authority. You must do what we’re told from a very young age is a cardinal social sin: you must become the fibber when taking on projects with real-world roots, as reality doesn’t nicely fall together with cinematic flow. You must embellish, and you must create.

Coogler understands the delicacy of his situation and takes charge of it with his Fruitvale Station, choosing to weave a cinematic retelling of the controversial events surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black male who was shot to death by police officers in 2009.

The film contains no preceding titles telling us if the film was “inspired by” or “based on” true events. We know it is, and Coogler knows we know it is. After all, as the circumstances that bolster the film still ring in our collective memory all too painfully.

Accusations of police brutality sparked riots across the country after Grant was killed. Some accused Bay Area Railway Transit police of extreme negligence; of racism; of lacking compassion for their fellow man. The face of law was tainted with seemingly innocent blood.

We can never fully understand the motivations of the officers involved, and events of Grant’s life will forever remain a mystery. We were not with him at the time of his death, nor were we at his side as his the final twenty four hours of his life unfolded.

Coogler crafts a daring interpretation of the final day Grant was able to pick his daughter up from school, have sex with his girlfriend, hug his mother, and plead with his ex-boss for a second chance at a job he’d been fired from. Grant’s life as a human ended in tragedy with real-life reverberations, but Coogler understands the power of fictional affect, and Grant as a character becomes a dynamic canvas for us to feel so much more.

We must never forget that Fruitvale Station is fiction, and that fiction sometimes can be just as powerful as the truth. You can feel the real-world implications of Grant’s death (oppression, anger, injustice) coursing through the film’s veins in its atmosphere, as Coogler takes on his role as the God of his own universe. We see Grant how Coogler wants us to see him–not as he was, but how the film requires us to: in beautifully-framed glimpses against the sunlight, in the quiet moments of his personal turmoil, scenes with surreal beauty we can’t experience in real life.

Fruitvale Station is best when it does what it needs to do as a narrative, as a work of art, and as an entity that’s complimentary to the truth, not substituting itself for the truth. The film does not make Oscar Grant out to be a hero. It does, however, mold a character from shreds of his actual existence.

The film feels impressionistic, but it is not aimless. Coogler weaves a tale of a man without direction, but with massive heart. It’s a mistake to take this as a testament of the real person. None of us knew Oscar Grant, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t place judgment upon him, nor does it elevate him to heroic status. He’s swamped by a million different things. He’s lazy, he’s lost his job by his own error, and boasts a lengthy criminal history, he does drugs, he cheats on his girlfriend, but he’s also a loving father, an indebted son basking in the light and love of his mother, and chugging along the rails of a life that seeks to reject him as a minority. There’s no evil in that. There’s fault in his actions, but only from the perspective of the rest of us in glass houses. We’re all surrounded by panes of glass; Grant’s just happened to be collecting societal grime, easier to see, and easier to shatter.

The film does become important as a testament to contemporary American culture, not merely as a recreation of “true” events. The circumstances surrounding the real Oscar Grant’s death are ambiguous. Was he resisting arrest? Was the officer rightfully fearful of Grant’s behavior? These are questions that seductive fiction–such as the story of Coogler’s Grant–can give us perspective on. Art forces us to question the world around us, not take it for what it is; there’s no reason a film based on true events should be taken as gospel, and there’s never an inkling that this is how Coogler wants us to see his film.

There’s a scene in Fruitvale Station which sees Oscar Grant step onto the BART train that would serve as his dinghy across the River Styx. From the platform, we see the doors open. Grant is pulled into a mass of people already on the train by his girlfriend, the doors shut, and the train whisks them away. We remain fixed, watching each car pass by, and the faces and bodies it contains blend together in a blur of human mass.

The real Oscar Grant was probably like those people on the subway, blending together as we pass them at breakneck speed on a train or casually on the sidewalk. He was probably the flawed character Coogler paints for us in Fruitvale Station. He was probably the adoring father his daughter most likely knew. We’ll never know, but Coogler insists on celebrating the mystery, making it beautiful, and prodding us to want in.

Fiction embellishes truth, creates image, stages scenes of  beauty, and gives us perspective on the burden of our reality waiting on the other side of the credits.

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Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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