fruitvale station oscars

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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National Board of Review Announces Winners: ‘Gravity’ Hurts, ‘Her’ Soars Into the Race

spike-jonze-her-joaquin-phoenix

The National Board of review has announced its annual list of year-end bests, moving in a drastically different direction than yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, crowning Spike Jonze and his film Her with its top two honors.

The NBR generally tends to favor showy titles, big names, big budgets, and audience-friendly fare, which makes it entirely surprising that Gravity–a film right up the NBR alley–walks away with only a special achievement award here. If Gravity‘s finds little success with the LAFCC later this week, its chances at its previously-expected Oscar glory might plummet, though I have faith that the HFPA will eat the film up in its dramatic categories.

Gravity could also prove to have been a mid-season fluke. Its existence as a massive box-office success helmed almost entirely by an Oscar-winning actress (one of the most powerful in Hollywood, mind you) might have bogged the film down with unrealistic expectations that were entirely ahead of themselves just before awards season.

Gravity is, compared to other films in the race, a crowd-pleasing stroke of surface entertainment. It delves beyond the surface if you’re willing to look, but seeing through to its thematic/metaphorical structure isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. It’s still a lock in key technical categories.

The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout the precursor awards is an outpouring of love for Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. Though it seems to be sweeping minor categories (directorial debuts, breakthrough performances), it’s becoming clear that there’s a passionate push behind the film that extends into other areas, as Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer have been recognized by the Film Independent Spirit Awards and NBR, respectively.

So far, Coogler’s film has received honors and nominations from Sundance, Cannes, the Gotham Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the NYFCC, the Satellite Awards, and now from the NBR. It would be a huge mistake to discount Fruitvale Station‘s chances in the Oscar category for Best Picture.

Sarah Polley adds another win to the ongoing tally for her documentary Stories We Tell, which is now poised as the frontrunner in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Last year, the National Board of Review honored Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty with multiple awards (including for her Direction and Jessica Chastain’s lead performance), though it fell just short of Oscar glory thanks to an ugly political agenda aiming for its demise. Whereas the critics circles tend to exist in their own world (somewhat exemplified by the NYFCC’s love for American Hustle), the NBR usually takes a few steps further, throwing in random mass-appealers (Lone Survivor this year) year after year, or pushing an unexpected film to the forefront of the discussion.

Will the NBR’s push for Her extend the film’s reach into big categories at the Oscars? Maybe. We’ve only just witnessed the opening of the gates, and Her is now positioned for a healthy run.

Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

Fruitvale Station

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

Nebraska

Prisoners

Saving Mr. Banks

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best FilmHer

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

Best Ensemble: Prisoners