Tragic and Compelling
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, the horrific shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, by a Bay Area transit police officer in Oakland, California, sent the area into a raging tizzy of protests, riots, rallies, and marches.
Though young filmmaker Ryan Coogler opens Fruitvale Station -- named after the BART station where the shooting took place -- with actual cell phone footage of the deadly incident, he never sensationalizes the highly politicized incident. Instead, Coogler focuses on Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) the flesh-and-blood father, boyfriend, and son who was also once a San Quentin inmate. By giving us a soul-stirring, warts-and-all portrait of the film’s main character, rather than a play-by-play docudrama of the troubling event, he helps viewers realize that when one’s life is lost, the real nature of the tragedy lies in who the victim was to the people that knew him best.
With the disturbing opening footage still fresh on our minds, the movie rewinds 24 hours to give us an intimate look at the last day of Oscar’s life. Coogler counters popular criticism of the time by painting the man as neither a saint who had never done anything wrong, nor as the monster who got what he deserved that night, as so many felt. We see he’s just a typical young man scratching out the most meager of livings, while struggling to forget his former drug dealing ways. We’re touched by the calm and gentle interactions with his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), assured by the respect for his mother (Octavia Spencer), but horrified by the bouts of rage that seem to come from nowhere.
You may not know Michael B. Jordon by name (no, not THAT Michael Jordan), but you certainly know his face. Having cut his teeth in support as the drug-dealing urbanite Wallace on HBO’s The Wire, and high school quarterback Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights, this young actor displays a readiness to take the lead in Fruitvale. In fact, it’s rumored that next up for him is a starring role in a Rocky spin-off currently under development. The kid is that good, and he’s certainly responsible for much of Fruitvale’s success.
Also worth mentioning is the wonderful Academy-Award-worthy turn by Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother. We’ve seen the role of suffering-mother-to-troubled-kid many times before, but never like this. She convinces her son to take the BART train into town rather than his car so as not to fret over his safety. The point stings that sometimes just being a black man can be the most dangerous thing.
Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, Oscar’s exasperated girlfriend. The chemistry between Diaz and Jordan is extraordinary, making her split between displeasure and happiness as she tries to cope with Oscar’s swings feel all the more real.
Surprisingly, Fruitvale Station is Coogler’s first feature film. Made on a micro budget and in just 20 days with the backing of Forrest Whitaker’s production company, the film feels much bigger and carries more emotional might than anything put out by the Hollywood machine this year -- something nearly unheard of from a first-timer. With an impending sense of doom that saturates nearly every frame, coupled with our knowledge of the real incident’s tragic outcome, Fruitvale Station emerges as a difficult film to watch. But Coogler’s artistic vision makes it impossible to turn away from this richly textured portrait. Unlike most Hollywood offerings, there’s no silver lining here. Just a brutal reality that cuts to the quick.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.