Yesterday was my third and final day of my whirlwind trip to Sundance. I was still pumped to be there, but could feel the fatigue starting to set in. If I ever get to go back again and stay for the full festival I know now that it’s really important to pace yourself. Or if you’re a former coffee drinker like me, to go back on coffee (which I should just publicly admit: I had one small cup of coffee and one latte on this trip).
We started the morning off at the early screening of first time director Ryan Coogler’s feature film Fruitvale. The narrative film–based on a true story–follows the last 24 hours of the life of Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART transit police in the Bay Area. (That’s not a spoiler–it was all over the news two years ago and the first minute of the film is actual cell phone captured video of his shooting). The film is well executed on all fronts and the audience is quickly drawn toward an affinity with Oscar watching him in well-scripted scenes with his daughter, his sweetheart, his mother and his grandmother. There’s several moments, such as he interactions with a white woman at the grocery store, that show both the subtleties and prevalence of racism without being heavy handed. It’s so rare to see such positive portrayals of young black men as this film offered. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a place where other positive portrayals where the character gets to live and prosper are also financed to get on the screen.
The film is an incredible journey, and even though from the first minute of the film (even if you don’t know who Oscar Grant is) you know from the actual documentary cell phone footage he’s going to get shot, by the time we reach that point in the film you’re bawling. Literally everyone around me was in tears. It was such an intense experience being in a room of hundreds of people sobbing together, the majority of whom I suspect are people whose lives are much removed from Oscar Grant’s world and have rarely been led to sympathize with a young black man in his situation like that. It was one of those moments that is a jolting reminder of the power of film to transport people to a different perspective than their lived realities and expand their world views. The entire film is shot with the camera objectively following the character through his day. But when he’s shot and on the brink of death the camera momentary switches to a POV (point of view) shot which to me is the ultimate moment in the film where after following him and building all this compassion you are finally brought into is perspective.
The film poignantly ends with documentary footage from the recent (New Year’s Day 2013) memorial rally for Oscar Grant where you see the real life family members you’ve been on this restaged journey with. It’s the final punch that reinforces the constant work of this film: to humanize the results of racism and violence.
One side note about the film: say what you will about Octavia Spencer and her role in The Help, but see this movie and reconsider any personal attacks on her that may have been made. She stars as the mother and is one of the producers/financial backers of the film who brought it to reality and I think that should be noted.
In the afternoon I saw a very different film called Citizen Koch by documentary filmmaking duo Carl Deal and Tia Lessen who did one of my favorite documentaries Trouble the Water. I consider myself a fairly well-educated and informed person who keeps up on politics and news, but I learned so much from this film. The filmmakers show the corruption of our electoral process through the ability of corporations to finance campaigns through SuperPACs. The film focuses on the case of Wisconsin and cleverly weaves back and forth between a verite style of following personalized stories of several Wisconsin residents and their experiences after Scott Walker’s election and the recall and news footage and talking head interviews with folks such as Bob Edgar, director of Common Cause. The film has great potential as an organizing tool as we lead up to the next election to educate and ignite people to take action on corporate restrictions and electoral reform and I’m excited to see the outreach and engagement that will be developed for this film.