About a month ago, I posted a link to Fruitvale Station on my Facebook page and expressed both excitement to see Melonie Diaz on the screen as well as chilled sadness about the story of Oscar Grant’s murder. After catching the final screening of Fruitvale Station at my local cineplex last week, I have to say that among other thoughts and feelings, what stuck out the most to me was/is disappointment.

Mostly, I am disappointed in the lack of originality that a film with Sundance funding, written and directed by a young filmmaker, and marketed so well that it arrived at a multiplex, lacked. The ‘could-have-beens’ are infinite here, and I’ll choose one to elaborate: Why this version of the story?

Since the audience either comes to the film with knowledge about Grant’s murder, or is given a quick prologue of footage caught on cell phones from witnesses, we all know that the central character dies. With this kind of knowledge, there are multiple ways the story can unfold on the screen, namely out of order. There is no narrative reason to tell the story in a linear fashion because we already know what happens at the end. Telling the story forward, using the trope of ‘the last 24 hours of his life’ has not been interesting…ever.

Actually, the most interesting thing about this film is the overdetermined use of cell phone graphics layered over the action. Periodically the visual narrative shifts from a single, flat screen of documentary-style (read: shaky hand-held filmmaking) film to allow an for the overlay of a blue-lit cell-phone screen. This is interesting because it breaks the feeling of  ‘realness’ by making the audience aware that the story itself has been altered exponentially — if it is not immediately obvious in the narrative, it is quite obvious in the layered graphics. And so, we become attuned to ways that cell-phone video capture plays a major role in the facts surrounding Grant’s murder. What becomes an integral part of the formal storytelling early on in the film, serves to foreshadow the surrounding witnesses to the film’s main point/event, while simultaneously, the onscreen blue-screen serves as a distancing effect between the narrative action and the recognition that this entire film has been very much worked over in post production.

Ultimately, I wanted to appreciate this film; however, I am struggling now to be able to place it. More storytelling, more nuanced scripting, more interesting structure could have made the story that is both infuriating and deeply gut wrenching, intellectually appealing and critically engaging. Instead, I am left with a goal oriented protagonist who has 24 hours before he is murdered. These 24 hours are filled with active choices and small failures, a nuclear family/ love interest, and a desire to make a better life for himself by bettering his surroundings to the best of his abilities– until the ultimate climax of the film, after which he dies. I believe this is beginning screenwriting 101. A story this important deserves a better telling. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Finally, I refuse to see this as a ‘Black film.’ (As an aside to the current conversations building about Lee Daniel’s The Butler, I think that The Butler is a complicated film with blackness as a central component.) However, Fruitvale Station completely misses the mark or cinematic opportunity to critically address white supremacy in the fabric of the United States. Perhaps by missing the mark by so much, Fruitvale Station  is actually the most ‘Black’ film experience available in our contemporary cinemascape. But, not in the way that scholars, critics, and filmgoers looking for Black film want Black film to figure. Because the film is mostly indifferent to white supremacy (there is the figure of Katy), and uses text instead of images at the very end to address the complete failure of justice for Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station pushes aside the very skeleton of its own story. Oscar Grant was murdered for being Black, in a group, and loud. His family and friends are working class Black and Brown citizens who are still fighting for justice. By leaving this story until the end of the film, using text to describe the 11 months Grant’s murderer served, and by removing the sound from the actual documentary footage of his family and friends, we are left without closure, restless, and angry. If the audience is meant to leave the theater feeling closer to Grant’s loved ones, it is not because we somehow know more about them, but because we are left with a simulated affect. This is a de-politicized affect. This is Fruitvale Station‘s biggest miss, and as far as I can say, it’s deepest neglect.

Advertisements