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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times