American director Ryan Coogler's debut feature, Fruitvale Station premiered at the 2013 Sundance festival (then under the less direct, shorter title Fruitvale) and came out in the midst of a film year where the "black experience" became an unexpected, coincidental trend in American filmmaking. The 12 months between the releases of Quentin Tarantino's uneven Django Unchained and Steve McQueen's harrowing 12 Years a Slave also brought Fruitvale Station, fellow Sundance sensation Blue Caprice and Lee Daniels' crowd-pleasing The Butler (whose star, Forest Whitaker, is the producer of Mr. Coogler's independently-made film).

     Since Blue Caprice hasn't been picked up for Portuguese release, Fruitvale Station becomes the only one in this batch to deal with contemporary America, taking its lead from the infamous New Year's Eve 2009 incident that saw the young Bay Area man Oscar Grant die from gunshots from a Bay Area transit officer after a scuffle on board a crowded commuter train. Mr. Coogler's film is a reenactment of Oscar's final 24 hours leading towards the tragedy, using it as a greater symbol of the current working-class black experience. A former small-time dealer who served time in jail and can't seem to hold on to a job, Oscar is also a devoted son and father, who is trying to get his life right as best he can, though dealt a marked hand from a deck that seems stacked against him on mere account of his skin colour.

     Up-and-coming actor Michael B. Jordan doesn't play Oscar as as a martyr or a saint, but as a conflicted, well-meaning if awkward young man asking himself how he can best move forward. The best thing about Fruitvale Station is its attempt to avoid the obvious tropes of characterisation, though it sadly ends up falling into the narrative traps of the "social realist problem picture" in a way that neither the commitment of all involved nor the story itself, shot with the agreement of Oscar's surviving family, deserve. Though Mr. Coogler makes a strong point of portraying Oscar as an individual and his story as one among many in the "naked city", the film he builds around him conforms far too much to the standard "inspired by true events" melodrama as well as to the format of modern, "gritty" American indie cinema (visible in DP Rachel Morrison's often intriguing handheld compositions).

     There's always a sense that Fruitvale Station is doing the opposite of what its director wants its story to mean, carried away by the righteous anger at the heart of his reaction to the story - but, to be sure, there are many good reasons to pay attention to Mr. Coogler's film, starting with the generally very solid acting and the sensibility to the daily life of these people. Just don't see it as another frontrunner for a non-existant "new black cinema" that is nowhere to be seen, elsewhere or in this earnest picture that doesn't have anything specifically "black" other than its story.

USA 2013
85 minutes
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler ; cinematographer Rachel Morrison (colour); composer Ludwig Göransson; designer Hannah Beachler; costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers; editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia S. Castello; producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, Significant Productions in association with the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Screened February 24th 2014 (distributor press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)



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