Fruitvale Station’s grandest quality is an avoidance of playing victim to a controversial cultural issue surrounding the sudden death of Oscar Grant. The situation, involving a BART officer firing an unneeded shot into a handcuffed Grant on New Years Day, was tragic national news. Riots and anger followed, with blame on both ends portraying inadequate perspective of Grant’s final moments.
Thus this film, a small feature following Grant (Michel B. Jordan) on his final day. Grant is not portrayed with a victim’s complex; Surrounding him is a grander societal issue. He has a young daughter, is unmarried, jobless, and carries a past history of jail time. Said framing is golden for TV news pundits and slippery opinions.
Crucial is Fruitvale’s dodge of racial prejudices or perceived personal stance. What happened was a grotesque abuse of power even before the fatal shot was fired, an incident which sparked from rising emotions and reactionary measures.
For Fruitvale, it is a means of pursuing the subject matter hands off. Camera work shifts toward documentary/hand held style, removing glossy cinematography. Grant’s day is one of normalcy outside of his mother’s birthday party, and perfect framing device to build a genuine human character from Jordan’s performance. Writer/director Ryan Coogler inserts no commentary into the narrative, rather building Grant as someone on the precipice of change.
Opening dialog discusses New Year’s resolutions. Grant’s girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) wants to lose carbs, and Grant doesn’t have an answer. His resolution is internal. He shies from selling drugs out of desperation and pleads for legitimate work. Fruitvale builds an honest person out of Grant, with brief flashbacks showing a tougher side. This is not a story built from heroics or with cinematic gloss, rather one connected together with naturally flawed people who are in the midst of learning from their errors.
Importantly, the film builds a self-reflective mirror, one wherein our own perceptions and rash judgments inflict irreparable harm. Grant is a beacon for societies’ uncomfortable admissions. At a grocery store, Grant approaches a young woman with an intent to help and she slinks away to the side almost instinctively to create distance. The sequence is intelligent for character building and it’s subtle messaging. That side step is predictive of the final BART response, fueled by the same misappropriated fear. Fruitvale offers no answers short of being better, less fearful people in Grant’s name. It seems too logical to work.
Cooper shoots on 16mm, requesting this Anchor Bay AVC encode to cleanly pulverize a thickly laid grain structure. With menial chroma noise anomalies, Fruitvale is superbly rendered. Grain manages to sink in with bite and remain in the vein of film. So rarely does this transfer appear digitally composed. Slight source imperfections (including a handful of scratches and dirt) almost add to the feel even if it is always alarming to see such issues on a new release.
Limited post production touch up leaves the piece sitting squarely in the realm of natural saturation. There are no attempts to blurt out oranges to enhance primaries or find specific palettes. The final key scenes in the BART station skew blue under the fluorescent lighting to flawlessly match those cell phone videos which captured the actual events. The film opens with authentic video and is logically of lower quality.
Embedded in the video is exceptional texture in close, not only what is generated from the grain. Facial fidelity is rich where possible and textural qualities pour from the same when in prime focus. Cinematography can waver focus to replicate home movie footage and auto adjusting lenses, obviously impacting final results. Those sequences are few, at their worst during a prison visit.
Contrast is nominal, with purposeful, weakly designed lighting for interiors. Black levels shift toward gray while still holding enough depth to satisfy and not distract. Fruitvale is overall commendable for its reality and adherence to the qualities of 16mm.
Limited scoring and menial focus on soundtrack leaves this DTS-HD track open to ambiance. Grant becomes surrounded by his city, with sirens echoing or dogs barking. Subtlety becomes key as the film pokes into increasing frenzy. Grant moves into New Year’s celebrations with increasingly boisterous streets and fireworks. Within Fruitvale Station itself, the panic and chaos is represented by directional voices trying to make sense of the escalating situation.
Of final note is a drop in dialog fidelity. Clarity is not key. Instead, this is an application of cruder methods to better replicate generic camera quality. The effect is baked into the design.
The Story of Oscar Grant leads the bonuses, 21 minutes of focus on Grant’s story from the perspective of a number of noted speakers. There are elements of Ryan Coogler chose these events for his film, but this is mostly a piece on the impact of Grant’s death. A half hour cast/filmmaker discussion post-screening follows and becomes equally personal.
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