Featuring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler
Australian release date: Thursday, 7th November
Verdict: Manipulative and oh-so-Hollywood, but somewhat redeemed by good performances and a powerful finish.
Based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident, whose murder by police on New Year’s Eve 2008 was captured on video by onlookers, sparking national outrage.
The film opens with actual video footage capturing the moments preceding the murder of Oscar Grant. White cops loom over a group of sitting black Americans baled up against a wall. There is a scuffle, a confusion of struggling uniformed and civilian bodies and the sound of a shot. Chilling.
Unfortunately, the movie that follows is nowhere near as dramatic or compelling. Sounds unfeeling; this is a guy’s life we’re dealing with, not a fictional movie, right? Well, no. That’s the problem: Oscar’s back story as presented here is just so Hollywoodized.
Picking up in the days leading up to that fateful New Year’s Eve, we learn that ex-con Oscar is a charming bad boy, repentant of his past transgressions and in the process of turning his life around. His longtime (and long-suffering) girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) appears to have had enough of his wanderin’ ways, and unconvinced of his self-rehabilitation is on the point of tossing him out. But he’s just so irresistible and funny, and it doesn’t take long before they’re all smoochy, wid his latest infidelity apparently forgiven. In defence of Sophina, it does seem her philandering man is genuinely intent on turning over a new leaf. Several of ’em, as it transpires. Turns out the bulk of the flick is one long over-cooked tale of redemption.
When calling by at his bro’s fish retail business, Oscar gets talking to a white female customer clueless about fish and how to cook it. Flirting only a little, he helps out by calling his dear old seafood-cookin’ granny, making her day before passing the phone to the charmed customer. What a guy. So happens the customer bumps into him by chance on New Year’s Eve just in time to witness the shooting and record it on her cellphone. Neat as a jigsaw, the way this plot fits together.
Then there’s his poor old ma (Octavia Spencer); actually, not so old – she must have been a young mother. Oscar seeks to make up for neglecting her by arranging a family get-together for her birthday, which falls on New Year’s Eve, and follows up by buying her a birthday card. He’s got some ground to make up; he’s put her through the wringer with worry.
Via flashback we see Ma dealing out tough love to him during a jail visit. Taking exception to an insulting remark from one of the other cons – a particularly nasty-looking piece of work – undisciplined Oscar flies off the handle and has to be restrained by the wardens. Mama’s had a gutful and announces she won’t be coming to see him again. His desperate pleas to her to change her mind as she walks off is one of the few genuinely affecting parts in Oscar’s back story. (And the nasty con ain’t just an ugly face; he performs a plot function, fortuitously popping up when released to play a part in the New Year’s Eve shooting drama. See? Neat as a jigsaw.)
At a gas station, Oscar befriends a stray mutt (no dude who loves animals can really be bad, right?). Moments later a speeding driver hits the dog, which breathes its bloody last in Oscar’s arms. Come ON!
In the grip of early onset New Year resolution fever, Oscar then throws out his dope, along with any opportunity of making some bucks on the side as a small-time dealer. This is especially noble, since he’s just lost his job.
And of course, there’s his incredibly cute daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), who ups the emotional stakes. Naturally the little sweetie adores him. As well she might; he’s a terrific father, full o fun and affection and naughty petty conspiratorial undermining of her mum’s authority.
Micheal B. Jordan does a good job in the lead role, creating a character that is endearing despite, certainly not because of, all the hamfisted manipulation. That is, if a saint-in-waiting can be endearing. He’s well-supported by the rest of the cast, who in contrast come across as ordinary people with whom the viewer can readily identify, which makes for a poignant ending.
From the point at which Oscar and friends hit the town on New Year’s Eve, the film finds its power, albeit too late. You know what’s coming, and a Sword of Damacles brand of tension builds and builds as the dramatic climax approaches. The murder scene is brilliantly handled, as is the terrible ordeal of Oscar’s family and friends as they sit through the night in the ER waiting room hanging on news from the doctors.
At the end of the film, a few short sentences of text reveal the legal aftermath of the murder, evoking an overwhelming sense of outrage at this real-life atrocity and the inadequate penalty meted out to the guilty party by the ‘justice’ system. As the credits roll, there is a series of stills shots of the real Oscar Grant and his loved ones. This delivers an emotional wallop far in excess of that achieved in the fictionalised portrayal of Oscar that takes up so much of the film. It’s an unfortunate irony that a filmmaker striving for realism should fall so far short of a realistic characterisation of his lead. With a little restraint and a more meaningful and balanced investigation into Oscar’s life, this ultimately forgettable and inconsequential flick might have been so much more.
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