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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood