Blacks, whites and a real-life tragedy

Fruitvale Station starring Octavia Spencer.

UNITED STATES - Fritvale Station (M18)

85 minutes/Opens on Thursday/Rating: 3.5/5

The story: It is New Year's Eve 2008. Ex-convict Oscar (Michael B.Jordan) wants to get his life back on track, for his daughter and Sophina (Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and mother of his child. Proof of how serious he is about this: He dumps drugs which he could have sold for a profit, and he tries to get back his job at a supermarket, which he lost through absenteeism.

Riding the train to San Francisco for New Year countdown celebrations with friends, he gets into trouble with an enemy from jail and then with the transit police, one of whom shoots him. Based on a real story.

Andy Chen

This film's blah title, which is the name of a station in California's Bay Area Rapid Transit network, is likely chosen because it is non-incendiary.

Despite the film-makers' best intentions, there is no avoiding the film's controversial based-ontrue- events story of a white transit cop shooting and killing an unarmed African-American man.

The title also serves another purpose: It anchors Oscar's story in a real community - where he and his family and friends lived, where he took his daughter Tatiana to and from school, where he engaged in petty crime and probably got jailed for it.

Indeed, first-time director Ryan Coogler had said it was his aim to dignify Oscar by giving voice and flesh to his life, in a way grainy smartphone video footage of the real-life incident could not (apparently, quite a few witnesses had recorded the shooting on their mobile phones).

This Coogler has done well and won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

The scenes of domesticity - between Oscar and Sophina, between Oscar and his daughter (Ariana Neal), between Oscar and his supportive, no-nonsense mum (played by Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer, right) - are portrayed with great tenderness, yet minus the sap.

Friday Night Lights' Jordan, in particular, inhabits the role of Oscar with an easy-going and sly charm, as father, lover, son and even animal lover (he cradles a dying stray dog in his arms).

Less adeptly and less subtly handled are the racial politics. The only characters in the film who come across as real are black.

The white transit cops, on the other hand, are a picture of unbridled aggression - even if the African-American Coogler did film the shooting scene as if it might really have been an accident, rather a deliberate, callous act of racism.

That this is an intimate drama centred on an innately decent African-American man should be no excuse for treating its Caucasian characters as tokens.

The veracity and verisimilitude of the film need not have been confined to Oscar's community and certainly not suggested only by the decision to use handheld camera footage.


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