Fruitvale Station is directed by Ryan Coogler, and stars Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz.
Festival darling Fruitvale Station was finally released nationwide this weekend after a series of limited releases. I can finally see why it reaped major awards at festivals such as Sundance and Cannes, and is now generating buzz as that one indie flick for the year that the Academy takes a liking to. Ryan Coogler has an excellent directorial debut on his hands. At only 27, Coogler is a USC film school graduate. His leading man, Michael B. Jordan, is only 26. But the kid packs major heat, appropriately with a name like that. Jordan has been acting since he was a kid. He’s come a long way since his film debut, the Chicago filmed “Hardball,” where he played troubled Jamal. Since then, he has made his bones on various television series’, with a couple films in between. But this role is shooting him into the limelight. There is already talk of him nabbing an Oscar nomination for best actor, and deservedly so.
The story revolves around the last day of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old African American who was shot and killed by BART officers on New Years Day 2009. What happened that early morning was tragic. A fight ensued on the train, and Oscar was one of the involved. As the police apprehended him and his friends, it got very physical. As three officers pinned him down and cuffed him, he was then shot by one of them. The film opens with the uneasy, actual footage recorded by witnesses that day.
Once our story begins, we see Oscar waking next to his girlfriend, the very effective Melonie Diaz. She is upset with him because he has cheated on her. This is one of the beauties of this crafted film early on. Never does it paint Oscar as a saint. It shows him for the troubled, struggling young man he was. But this young man did not deserve to die. Throughout the movie, we see him go through his day. Whether it is running errands for his family, dropping off his daughter at school, or trying to make his own way, we witness a man searching for a fresh start. Oscar had once been in prison on drug charges. In the movie, it is shown that he still tinkers with this since he lost his job. There is a splendid scene where Jordan’s captivating portrayal of Oscar is in full effect. He is helping a young lady with her grocery quest, calling his grandma to even help. The next moment, he is getting very aggressive with his old boss. The quick emotion shifts of Jordan show his acting chops. And it provides even more of a window into this character.
Eventually, Oscar is at a pier point waiting on a friend. Here we are treated to a flashback of him in prison with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer. This is another magnificent scene. The passion exchanged between Jordan and Spencer, fresh off an Academy victory herself, is crackling. Jordan may have a chance to join her in that award department. But it is still too early to tell, as awards season hasn’t rolled around yet. After, we are treated through some heartwarming family interactions. The relationship with Oscar and his daughter is moving. Jordan so effectively captures the essence of a young father doing his best to raise his daughter. He makes mistakes. But you root for this guy, because you know he is doing anything he does for her.
When the film reaches the point of the train station, it is minutes away from New Years. There is celebration amidst the train. Unfortunately, Oscar runs into a former enemy from jail. A fight breaks out, and the police respond. This whole sequence is put together spectacularly. Again, never does it necessarily paint Oscar as a martyr. His friends are drunk and being insubordinate. The police are being rough, maybe too rough, but you can see both ends of the spectrum. When Oscar is brought out, there are points where he lashes out verbally against the police. At one point, he tries to stand to take action too. As you watch, you just want to yell at the screen and tell the kid to remain calm, just sit and do what they say. It is tough to watch. The police eventually pin Oscar down viciously. Then, an officer draws his weapon and shoots him in the back. Amidst the panic of friends and family, it gets even more emotional. At the hospital, with all gathered, Oscar is pronounced dead. The shot of his corpse and Spencer’s reaction are heartbreaking, as is the final shot of the movie with his girlfriend and daughter.
What Coogler has accomplished is quite impressive. He shows a natural ability as a director, telling us a compelling narrative. He shows us the beauty and the ugliness. Oscar Grant was just a young man trying to straighten his life out. He was trying to fix things. Something many can relate to. His death was tragic, and he did not deserve to die. Jordan captures a spirit so charming, charismatic, yet torn; a man just trying to do well. Amidst the Trayvon Martin verdict, this film’s release has had even more resonance. The officer who shot and killed Grant was charged with first degree murder. But he stated that he mistook his gun for his taser, and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He served 11 months in prison. What were left with at the end of the movie is this: Relating to another mortal, wanting to be a better human being ourselves; because it shows us how precious life is, and how quickly it could be lost. We’re left with a 22 year old kid who is dead; and a mother who lost a son, a girlfriend a partner, and a daughter her father. His death left gaping holes in many hearts. That is a crying shame. A truly powerful film on all ends.