Oscar Grant was a real man. The horrible, needless, and devastating events that happened to him in the very early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at Fruitvale Station in Oakland were captured clearly on video. Everyone knows what happened; however, the knowledge of the aftermath diminishes none of the suspense, foreboding, and overall emotional weight Fruitvale Station heaves on the audience.
Ryan Coogler’s debut film chronicles the last 24 hours of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) short 22 year-old life. I have no idea how much of the events and conversations portrayed in the film are true, yet they produce a deep understanding and sympathy for the most well rounded character showcased on screen this year. Fruitvale does not surround Oscar with a halo either; it exposes him warts and all.
Even though he was only 22, Oscar had already been to prison. He had a short fuse and noticeable anger management issues. On the other hand, Oscar is shown as a loving father to his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), a boyfriend trying to do the right thing by his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and a loyal son to his hard-working and anxious mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). He has plenty of faults to go around, but Oscar earnestly wants to get his life together.
The first time we see Oscar, he feuds with Sophina about a vague infidelity but he shrugs it off saying it doesn’t matter because it’s in the past and only Sophina and Tatiana are in his future. Oscar goes to his former employer at a grocery store begging for his job back pleading that he has his head straight now and is ready to work only to turn threatening when the conversation does not turn out how he imagined it. Oscar appears so used to getting fourth and fifth chances it throws him off-balance when he finally runs out of do-overs.
For all the times Oscar flashes his temper, there is compassion in him as well. A scene with a lost dog, helping a struggling customer at the store, Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), and shopping for his mom’s birthday dinner shows there were many facets to Oscar. He had his problems, but he also had so much promise. All of these scenes of happiness (playing with his daughter, celebrating his mom’s birthday) and sadness (the lost job, flashbacks to prison) are laced with suspense and dread because we know what is coming.
The film’s first shot is the actual cell phone video of the police brutality homicide. There is no surprise; we know it’s coming. Yet there is so much shock, incredulousness, and anger associated with this reenactment that Fruitvale Station will stay in your head long after you leave the theater. In these times of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station coincides with an eerily similar incident and provides a cinematic study to help audiences reflect on our society’s issues.
Fruitvale Station won the top prize at Sundance and an Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer is a welcome screen presence and firmly holds the film in the palm of her hand for the final 10 minutes. Michael B. Jordan is very effective as Oscar and if you remember him as Wallace from Season 1 of The Wire, it is a shock to seem him all grown up.
Coogler is not on the warpath here. He could easily have made Fruitvale Station with an underlying agenda or as a bloody rant against racist cops or about racism in America at large. Stepping back a bit, just as Wanda does, to focus on Oscar instead of immediate vengeance, Fruitvale is a story about a young man whose life was tragically cut short. Justice and retribution come in time, but this movie is about Oscar, the good and the bad; and Fruitvale is much stronger for it.
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O'Reilly, Ariana Neal