Saint's day: Oscar Grant (Michael B Jordan), with his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
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Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station: A hagiography shot on shaky cam

Fruitvale Station imagines the last day of Oscar Grant's life - a young black American shot dead by a police officer in 2009. The film may be rooted in truth, but it's a long way from documentary.

Fruitvale Station (15)
dir: Ryan Coogler

Few news reports of a murder or manslaughter include testimony proclaiming the victim to have been of poor character or limited prospects, or to have harboured so much as an overdue library book. This might simply be the result of a wish not to add the insult of character assassination to injury, but death usually confers potential that life may not have had.

There is no way of knowing what the young African-American man Oscar Grant would have gone on to do had he not been shot dead by a transit police officer during a routine arrest in California in the early hours of 1 January 2009. (The officer, who claimed to have been reaching for his Taser, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.) Fruitvale Station, a fictionalised film about the final day of Oscar’s life, gives him the benefit of the doubt. The result is documentary in style but idealised in essence – a hagiography shot on shaky cam. Perhaps this reflects a culture in which the story can only be sold as that of a slain angel, rather than an ordinary man whose death was an injustice. Would his killing be any less unlawful had he not been portrayed as the type to help frail old women across busy roads?

Oscar (Michael B Jordan) is a 22-year-old ex-con hoping to get back the supermarket job that he lost through repeated tardiness, if possible before his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), finds out he was sacked. They have a four-year-old daughter and money is tight. It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s also the birthday of Oscar’s mother (Octavia Spencer), so the pressure for everything to be harmonious is especially high.

He could make a quick buck selling drugs but that might land him back in prison. All he needs to do is stay clean for 30 days and his future will be assured – that’s how long Oprah says it takes to forge a habit, he reminds Sophina. From a television set in the corner of the room, the talk-show queen and lifestyle guru stares beatifically out, the closest thing to a higher power in Oscar’s world. The film suggests that Oscar was preparing to relinquish his old drug-dealing ways. The first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler imagines for him a scene in which he is crouching by the ocean, recalling his spell in prison. It is this that prompts him to dump a stash of dope in the water. Even in the teeth of poverty, he will remain moral.

As Fruitvale Station isn’t a documentary, Coogler would have been entitled to show Oscar walking on that water if he had so desired. The film doesn’t go that far. But there is an episode in which he cradles a dying pit bull that has been the victim of a hit-and-run driver. The metaphorical thrust of the scene appears to be that the animal has been perceived as threatening or disposable, in the same way that society might view a young black male such as Oscar. It also marks him out as a caring individual in a heartless world and leaves him with a smear of blood on his white T-shirt, hinting at the violence to come. That’s a lot of symbolic weight for one fabricated incident to bear.

Coogler has made a lean, single-minded drama that picks its form and sticks to it. Only the most resistant viewer will be immune to its thriller techniques, its imposing score, its creeping escalation of danger. One striking choice was to begin with camera-phone footage taken on the night Oscar was killed, before zipping back to the start of the previous day. But the flashback is a distorting tool that should be used carefully.

Once the audience knows what is coming, everything else assumes a crushing inevitability. To pretend that the events of Oscar’s last day foreshadowed his death at every turn is no less dishonest than making a period drama in which all the characters know they’re living in the past. The problem with Fruitvale Station isn’t that it is
so dense with foreboding but that foreboding is the only register it has. You realise you’re in the land of the portentous when even the small-talk involves a minor character asking a fishmonger to show her the state of his sole.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism