Quentin: We went to see Fruitvale Station yesterday, but we decided to sleep on this one before we discussed it.
Jake: It’s about Oscar Grant, the young man who was shot and killed by a BART police officer in 2009.
Jason: The incident was recorded by several people on their cell phones and was widely viewed on YouTube. The three of us talked about this, and we didn’t see any reason not to lead with a link to one of those videos (after the jump). If you don’t want to watch, we don’t blame you. But this is why someone made a movie about Oscar Grant.
Jake: The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance festival.
Quentin: And it’s gotten some Oscar buzz.
Jason: As well it should.
Quentin: But is it a good film or a great film?
Jake: That’s the question. I think Ryan Coogler accomplished what he set out to do.
Jason: He’s the director, right?
Jake: Yes. This is his first film. He’s 27 and recently graduated from USC film school.
Quentin: Before we get into what he was trying to accomplish, let’s outline his take, because there are numerous ways he could have told this story.
Jason: He could have done a complete biography of Oscar Grant.
Jake: He could have told the backstory of both Oscar Grant and the cop who shot him.
Quentin: He could have told the story of the aftermath: the trial, verdict, and reaction.
Jake: With the exception of one scene, Coogler opted to tell the story of the last 24 hours in Grant’s life. The shooting and its aftermath take up maybe 10 minutes of screen time.
Quentin: So in many ways, it’s a quiet film. It’s 24 hours of a guy living his life, trying his best to be a good guy and not always succeeding.
Jake: Which is all of us.
Jason: I think that’s the point.
Jake: Yes. It also transforms Oscar Grant into a person, a life, instead of just a headline.
Quentin: And I don’t remember the name Oscar Grant even making it into the headlines. I remember people saying things like, “Oh, yeah, did you hear about that white cop who executed a black kid on the subway platform in San Francisco?”
Jason: Exactly. Lots of misinformation. Fruitvale Station is a BART station in Oakland, not San Francisco. No doubt there was plenty of blame to go around, but it wasn’t a public execution. Coogler is very careful to dramatize the shock and horror on all the cops’ faces when that gun goes off.
Jake: Coogler’s point, though, is that Oscar Grant was more than a YouTube sensation. He had hopes and dreams.
Quentin: And the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Oscar Grant was no saint. I don’t know how much of the film is conjecture, but I love the way Oscar takes specific steps to turn his life around in the 24 hour window we get to watch. It’s very accomplished storytelling.
Jason: That’s what made it a tragedy for me. He seemed right on the cusp of a better life.
Quentin: It’s a good film. But at the end of the year, will we remember it?
Jake: It raises a lot of good questions about what makes a great film, and how we compare films to each other. I think people look at the creative ambition of a story and take that into consideration. The creative ambition of Fruitvale Station is relatively modest. Wouldn’t you agree with that?
Quentin and Jason: Yes.
Jake: Coogler pulls it off beautifully. The central performance by Michael B. Jordan is a master class is acting. The moments Coogler chooses elevate the film into the realm of poetry. But this movie does not have the same degree of difficulty as, say, Argo.
Quentin: Argo fuck yourself. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Jason: Or The Place Beyond the Pines.
Jake: An even better example. The Place Beyond the Pines has its flaws, but the scale of its ambition is so huge that I don’t care. At the end of the year, I’m still going to say it was the better film.
Quentin: So if we did a 5 star system, would you give this 4 or 5?
Jake: Fruitvale Station is a 5-star movie.
Jason: I think this is a discussion about how to evaluate 5-star movies against each other. The scale of a film’s ambition is a factor. This is really the first movie we’ve had to stack up against The Place Beyond the Pines.
Jake: Hopefully we’ll be seeing some better films as we head into the end of the year.
Jason: Lots of buzz around the new Woody Allen flick.
Quentin: One of the ironies for me, and I think this was intentional, was how at the moment of the shooting, none of the backstory mattered. Was race a factor? Yes. I don’t see how anyone could watch the way it escalated and say race didn’t play a role. If Oscar Grant had been white, it never would have gone down that way. But mostly, this is about an extremely unfortunate intersection of events. Oscar Grant was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If his mother hadn’t told him to take the train into San Francisco for New Year’s Eve, instead of driving like he wanted to, he would probably be alive today. If he had taken the train before or the train after, he never would have gotten into the fight that got him pulled onto the platform. If only the cop had grabbed his Taser instead of his gun. The dude’s bad luck made me sad.
Jake: I get it. You may find this film sticks with you longer than you originally thought.
Quentin: Maybe. We’ll see. What’s up next week?
Jake: Elysium. Matt Damon.
Jason: High hopes and low expectations.