2013 - 85 minutes
Written and Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal
First-time feature writer-director Ryan Coogler has done something remarkable with his debut “Fruitvale Station.” He’s managed to make a film about an emotionally charged true life event that doesn’t rely on demonstrative vitriol to elicit a response. His film gets us to respond by not only being about the incident that happened to a person and the politics and dogma surrounding it; it’s actually about the person it happened to and those most close to him.
Grainy cell phone video taken at the Fruitvale BART station gives a glimpse at the “what” when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed by transit police officers on New Year’s Day 2009. The next 90 minutes smartly focus on the “who.”
Of course, showing the footage at the film’s opening doesn’t undermine what comes after as the incident is engrained in public consciousness. We meet the fictionalized version of Oscar (an outstanding Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life, dealing with rent that’s due, planning his mother’s birthday party, caring for his daughter and mending the relationship with his girlfriend.
Coogler doesn’t litter the final day of Oscar’s life with big moments and melodramatic omens – the human drama is more than enough to sustain the tension and anticipation though 90 brisk minutes of runtime. The only moment that rang a little false and seemed a bit too cute is a scene where Oscar goes out of his way to assist a female customer at the grocery store where he recently lost his job. It’s set up to make you think he and his coworker have nefarious plans, only to show an above and beyond example of customer service. It also helps provide a clumsy way for Oscar to be identified on the fateful train later.
Though this and other scenes show Oscar as thoughtful and kind, he isn’t built up as a perfect saint. The one brief flashback shows him in prison when his mother (a note-perfect Octavia Spencer) comes to visit. He blows up at a fellow inmate and loses control. After the customer service scene in the grocery store, he pleads with his supervisor to give him old job back and quickly escalates his attitude to a scary, threatening tone. He’s no doubt affected by the struggles he faces, but internalizes most of his emotions until they bubble over. He doesn’t share his troubles openly, trying to stay strong for his fledgling family.
He’s gotten in trouble selling pot in the past and faces the dilemma of trying to clean up his act while also providing the necessary support for his girlfriend and daughter. Though a trade-off involving drug sales isn’t known to all of us, we all recognize difficult choices. There’s a great moment with Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina (another great performance from Melonie Diaz) where he finally reveals he lost his job and dumped his pot in the bay; her face shows a relief at him giving up the drug trade, mixed with worry of how they’re going to pay the bills.
We always understand the mixture of emotions simmering in the characters. On the train, Oscar and his circle of friends all tense up when a hooded figure enters their car. Only when he removes his hood and gives a head nod do they relax. Later, they tighten again when the same guy opens his backpack, only to pull out speakers to start an impromptu New Year’s celebration.
And how things can quickly turn. A brief fight sets up the final moments of Oscar’s life when BART officers remove him and his friends from the train and sit them on the platform. The officers are intimidating and rough, but Coogler never crosses the line to portray them as purely evil fanatics grossly overstepping their bounds. Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray play the cops with a straight menace that never goes into caricature. Oscar and his friends are shown reacting in a way that is natural and honest, but not exactly helping to ease the chaotic situation.
After the fateful gunshot, a lesser film may have ended with the ambulance driving away and Sophina and Oscar’s mom crying while on the phone, before cutting to a texted wrap-up of the aftermath. “Fruitvale Station” is better than that. We see the wounds and the pain of shattered bonds. The hesitation of Sophina to compose herself before answering her phone; tense moments and prayer in the hospital and Oscar’s mom viewing the body.
We do get a few lines of text explaining what happened to the officer who fired on the train platform, but by the time we see it, it’s not about the facts. The last line of the film, spoken by Oscar’s daughter, is a fittingly wrenching emotional conclusion. And one we can all understand.
© 2013 by Blake Crane