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.