November 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Fruitvale Station’, ‘Blackfish’ and ‘20 Feet from Stardom’

By Luke Davies
New films from Ryan Coogler, Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Morgan Neville

On New Year’s Eve, 2008, 22-year-old Oscar Grant and a group of friends caught the train from Oakland across the bay to San Francisco to see in the new year. At 2 am on New Year’s Day, returning home on the same line, the group was pulled off the train at Fruitvale Station by transit police officers, after an altercation in which they may or may not have been involved. (Accounts differ.) The train was full of revellers, a number of whom filmed the police attempting to get Grant and his friends to sit – or lie – on the platform. In the footage, the revellers are stroppy, the police stressed. An officer handcuffs one of Grant’s friends. Grant, sensing he’s next, gets to his knees, trying to reason. The police throw him to the ground. An officer straddles him and attempts to handcuff him. The crowd on the train call out: “That’s fucked up!” “Hey! Cut it out!” “Protect and serve, man.” The officer straddling Grant pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the back.

Grant was pronounced dead at the hospital. The officer who shot him was charged with murder, and testified in court that in the heat of the moment he mistook his gun for his taser. The jury returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter; the officer was sentenced to two years in prison, and served 11 months. In the days following the killing, Oakland bristled with tensions. Street protests nearly turned into riots. The media began to divide itself into two strands: the case was almost instantly politicised. Grant was a “thug”, a troublemaker, who got what he deserved. Grant was a good kid, in the wrong place at the wrong time, an African-American summarily executed by a white Bay Area transit officer. “It was a gut punch,” says director Ryan Coogler, who was the same age as Grant and working as a bouncer at a rave in the area that New Year’s Eve. “People took sides.”

Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (in limited release 7 November), which opens with real mobile-phone footage of the shooting and loops around, in a crisp 85 minutes, to its dramatised re-creation, covers the 17 hours from when Grant woke up on the morning of 31 December until he died in the early hours of 1 January. (In a heartwrenching scene in the hospital, Grant’s mother – played by Octavia Spencer – pleads with medical staff who won’t let her touch her son because his death has been ruled a homicide: “Please let me hug him. He don’t like to be alone.”) The film doesn’t concern itself with the fallout from Grant’s death, which is not to say it’s not a political film. Michael B Jordan’s portrayal of Grant is measured and low-key. So is the film itself, which unfolds with lucid simplicity as it tracks the barest bones of the day’s events.

There are moments in Fruitvale Station that smell a little of producer pressure, of an attempt to angle for a little more sympathy for Oscar, and thus perhaps for a wider audience. Certainly an awful lot happens on this particular 31 December. Of course, it is the moment for new year’s resolutions: presumably it’s OK to vow to be a better boyfriend, a better father to your daughter, a better son to your mother, and to try to get your act together, employment-wise. Still, when Grant turns his back on drug-dealing via the rather grandiose act of dumping a big bag of pot in the bay, and when he shows compassion to an injured dog, the scenes feel a little “constructed”. The film did not need to sugar-coat anything in order to render any more pointless and awful the moment of Grant’s death.


Watching Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s dark, unsettling documentary (in limited release 21 November), a recent shaky YouTube clip came to mind. A trained, bicycle-riding bear chases a trained, bicycle-riding monkey around a small hippodrome somewhere in China, to a packed arena of laughing spectators. Soon, the bear gains ground. The monkey crashes its bicycle. The bear dismounts, pounces and starts devouring the monkey. The wranglers – dressed like rodeo clowns – are ineffectual in their attempts to beat off the bear with sticks.

The clip reminds us that old-style circus antics – of the sort that degrade and bewilder bears and monkeys, lions and tigers and elephants – have become culturally “improper” in the so-called civilised West, and have mostly receded to eastern Europe and to Asia, where attitudes to animal cruelty differ. With a cleaner conscience now, we enjoy the syrupy spectacles of Cirque du Soleil.

But marine parks have endured, their rituals largely untouched over the decades, even as the very concept of “circus” reinvented itself. Dolphins do backflips or leap through hoops, smiling women step onto the snouts of killer whales, water-skiers fly up ramps, and everyone waves and smiles at the audience. It all seems positively benign.

On 24 February 2010, police were called to SeaWorld Orlando in Florida where, during a show, Tilikum, a 5000-kilogram killer whale, had dragged underwater a trainer called Dawn Brancheau. (Her spinal cord was severed and her jawbone and ribs broken; the coroner’s verdict was death by drowning and blunt-force trauma.)

Blackfish makes the claim that, in the aftermath of the attack, SeaWorld management misrepresented its case, at one point going so far as to suggest that Brancheau’s hair might simply have been caught in Tilikum’s teeth. The film also documents the startling fact that Tilikum had killed humans on two previous occasions – once at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada, in 1991, when Tilikum was about ten, and again at SeaWorld Orlando (which had purchased the orca when Sealand of the Pacific closed after the first death) in 1999. SeaWorld declined to participate in – and strongly denies the validity of almost every aspect of – the documentary, much of which consists of former orca trainers talking about the pressures of a life where commerce meets show business meets natural history.

“I don’t know if it will change the way you feel about animals in entertainment parks,” says Cowperthwaite of the film, adding, surely disingenuously: “I didn’t intend for it to do so.” Like Fruitvale Station, Blackfish is, in fact, an unambiguously partisan experience: both demand we take a side.


In 20 Feet from Stardom (in national release 21 November), Lisa Fischer, a backup singer for The Rolling Stones and Sting, is trying to describe the sublime feeling that can occur on stage when everything comes together, when her vocal riffs are interweaving perfectly with the band and the lead vocals. “You’re a little feather, and somebody says, phhh!” – she purses her lips and blows into her hands – “and you just go. And you’re never falling. You never hit your head. You just kind of … land.” Fellow vocalist Jo Lawry – an Australian, and fellow backup singer for Sting – echoes the sentiment when she speaks, beaming, of “the moment when all the harmonics ping! And I mean, if you don’t like that, what do you like?”

Morgan Neville’s relatively structureless, sometimes ambling but highly enjoyable documentary wants us to take sides, too. It wants us to love its subjects: Fischer and Lawry and backup singers the world over. But there are no antagonists here, no trigger-happy police or evasive marine-park management. There’s nothing to distract from what’s good about the film: a number of hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments that remind us just how exquisitely backing vocals can enrich songs.

After all, “singing background,” as a grinning Bruce Springsteen points out, “remains a somewhat unheralded position.” (Later in the film, Mick Jagger adds: “Singing ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ is kind of fun for a minute. But I’m not sure I’d like to do it for a living.”)

The women of 20 Feet from Stardom do it for a living, and have done so, in some cases, for a very long time. Merry Clayton, now 65, was in bed, heavily pregnant, 45 years ago, when she was summoned to a recording studio in the middle of the night, for a band she’d never heard of: that’s her extraordinary scream, “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” immortalised in The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’.

Elsewhere, Darlene Love (who sang, uncredited, the lead vocals on the Phil Spector–produced ‘He’s a Rebel’ at age 21 in 1962), Cindy Mizelle, Charlotte Crossley and others round out the parade of the unheralded. “Real musicians,” says Sting, “there’s a spiritual component to what they do. It’s got nothing to do with worldly success. Their music is much more of an inner journey.” When Darlene Love and a couple of fellow members of her ’60s backing group The Blossoms – now all around 70 years old – perform for the documentary cameras a haunting a capella version of ‘Lean on Me’, that inner journey is a pleasure to watch.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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