2008. New Year’s Eve. 22-year-old Oscar Grant III and his friends go out to celebrate the new year in the city. 2009. New Year’s Day. Oscar Grant is killed at Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California. The incident shocked the nation in the aftermath of New Year’s Day 2009, and that incident is the ending of director Ryan Coogler’s feature film debut, Fruitvale Station. Knowing the ending of a film usually prevents most people from wanting to see it, but Fruitvale Station isn’t the typical Hollywood film that leads to an unexpected, unpredictable finale. Much like Titanic, most people going into this know exactly how it ends, but that doesn’t lessen its impact or make the ending any less horrifying. Fruitvale Station ultimately becomes about the journey of Oscar Grant’s life leading to that incident.
Played by rising star Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, Chronicle), Oscar lives one day at a time with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in Hayward, California. The film drops us into a day in the life of Oscar as he goes about his routine of getting his daughter ready for school, driving around town and visiting the supermarket where he works. Despite his youth, it becomes clear how mature he is as a parent to Tatiana as well as a trusted associate to the town’s wheelers and dealers. His life isn’t perfect, though. Sophina accuses him of cheating on her with another woman and he soon gets fired from his job, but he still has his head held high. He helps out a woman at the supermarket pick out the right kind of fish purely out of the goodness of his heart. He sees a stray dog at a gas station and instinctively tries to help him out. For all intents and purposes, Oscar is a good man who’s just trying to make it in the world.
The love and devotion towards his family is never more clear than when he’s with his mother Wanda, played to perfection by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer. The scenes where Oscar is at a party with his extended family are some of the most honest moments I’ve seen in film in a while. Coogler pulls the audience in through small details, like the significance of food, the inside jokes that seem limited to the family and the exchanged looks that only a close family would give each other. A very clear picture is painted of a man who may struggle through the world but is able to get by through the help of his family and his friends. Yet, as scenes go by, there is a feeling of unease when the audience knows something will go horribly wrong. Everything feels too perfect. Despite a few bumps in the road, things seem alright for Oscar and his life. It is clear that Coogler creates this comfortable yet anxious atmosphere for a multitude of reasons. For one, the film has to lead to the dramatic conclusion that turned this into a story in the first place. Another reason is to get the audience to relate to Oscar, which is relatively easy to do based on the charisma of Jordan and his overall goodness as a human being.
However, the main reason Coogler fills much of the movie with comfortable scenes where nothing goes wrong is to prove a point about Oscar’s tragic conclusion. Oscar was simply a man living his life and then in a flash it was all over. I won’t get into the details of the film’s strikingly dark conclusion but I will describe the theater-going experience I had as a testament to how horrible the crime really was. Through most of the film, the audience in my theater was laughing and having a good time getting to know Oscar and his family as if they were members of their own family. When the film’s conclusion became evident, there was such a hush that fell over the crowd that likely reflected my own personal feelings. I can imagine most people went into the movie knowing exactly how it would end, but there comes a point when you’re rooting for a character so much that you start to convince yourself that a better outcome has to be possible. That’s how I felt watching the ending of Fruitvale Station as all of the lighthearted love of the film was sucked away in an instant. I was so blown away by the pure rawness of the performances at this point that they started to feel like real people and I was voyeuristically tuning in to their grief. Spencer gives one of the best performances of her career in the film’s final minutes in terms of the emotions she shows and the multitude of feelings she has to express. Diaz is similarly heartbreaking as she gradually begins to lose all hope about Oscar. Yet, the real star of the show is Jordan, who absolutely deserves an Academy Award nomination for his performance in this film. He has slowly made a name for himself in Hollywood, this film will make him someone to really watch out for in the coming years.
Fruitvale Station does something that so few movies are willing to do nowadays, and that’s to just let things play out naturally. I already knew what the tragic outcome would be going into the film, but I wanted to feel the experience on a human, emotional level that cannot be attained through newspaper articles or even television coverage. What Coogler does here is create a slice of life for many black families living in cities all over the country who live and love among their communities but are forced to live in a hushed state of fear that someone might be too quick to judge them based on the color of their skin and go to drastic measures. It is a very topical film in the current judicial climate for the United States, given the Trayvon Martin case and other race related stories getting more media coverage than ever before, yet that doesn’t automatically make the film good. The film’s strengths lie in its sympathetic yet unwavering look at the life of an innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have happened to anyone.
MVP: Michael B. Jordan
Best Director: Ryan Coogler
Best Lead Actor: Michael B. Jordan
Best Supporting Actress: Melonie Diaz
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer
Best Original Screenplay: Ryan Coogler
Photo: The Weinstein Company
Photo: The Weinstein Company