Fruitvale Station is one of the most powerful movies that you will see all year. It takes a look at the fateful events that took place on New Years Day 2009, when 22-year-old African American Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a (white) BART police officer. The release of Fruitvale Station so close to the recent verdict of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is very eerie.
On that fateful New Years Day Grant was killed at the Oakland train station while on the way to celebrate New Years Eve with his girlfriend and friends. After a scuffle on the train, the police pull them off the train and questioned them. The officers were on edge and became physical with Grant and his friends. Things escalated to the point where Grant was put on his back and shot by one of the officers and later died in the hospital. Footage of the shooting were captured on cell phones by passengers, leading to major media controversy and riots, as it became arguably the largest racial event in recent history. Until the recent Martin/Zimmerman case, of course.
If you’re not familiar with the events, it may pay off to do some research before heading into the theater. Even if it’s just an outline, it actually enhances your experience of the film. I went in with a basic understanding of the chain of events and this knowledge helped me really get an idea of what kind of direction that director Ryan Coogler was going with the film, and what kind of picture of Grant that he was painting.
The film shows us the final day of Oscar Grant’s life. Grant, is played by hot rising star Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, The Wire, Friday Night Lights), who does a magnificent job portraying him. Of course none of us know Grant personally, but Jordan makes this character feel like we know him, making him completely human, showing us both sides of Grant: good and bad.
Grant was a loving father of his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), treated his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) well and also took care of his mother (Octavia Spencer) and sister. Then there was another side. Grant was not perfect. He had a bad temper, served prison terms for felonies including selling drugs, and was unfaithful to Sophina. Grant was no angel, and the film doesn’t paint him as a one. He had a dark side, and the film doesn’t shy away from this, which was refreshing. Things don’t end well for Grant, so it could have been easy for Coogler, who also wrote the film, to paint him in such a way in order to guide us on how to feel about Grant’s fate.
They show Grant loose his temper when he finds out he is canned from his job after failing to show up on time. We see a flashback of him in prison showing a completely dark side even as his own mother is there to visit. But then Coogler shows him taking care of his daughter, and trying to save a dog in the street after a reckless driver hits it and drives away. They paint a very human picture of Grant, and fairly show both sides. He’s got a big heart, but he also has some demons. He’s human. This is something that Coogler deftly achieves, large in part to the powerhouse performance from Michael B. Jordan.
It takes strong acting chops for an actor to be kindhearted and sweet one minute, and then a scary, intimidating presence, in another. One scene that showcases this is when he visits the supermarket where he works and is kind to a girl who is trying to figure out what kind of fish to buy. He’s kind and sweet to her and even calls up his grandma to ask for her advice. A minute later he is seen intimidating his employer in a scary thug-like manner after his boss won’t give him his job back. The range of emotion and personality that Jordan displays in scenes like this are not an easy task, but it’s something that comes naturally to him as he knocked it way out of the park.
Coogler builds towards the big event all in one day, weaving all kinds of threads connecting to his past and introducing us to those special people in his life. We see his struggle to provide for his girlfriend and daughter, and to be a better son, after putting his mother through hell while he was in prison. Astonishingly we get all we need to know about Grant and his loved ones in the events of one day, all leading towards the dramatic finish which is unfortunately inevitable.
Once we see Grant and his friends on the train, your heart begins to pound in anticipation forced to face what will be a tough scene to swallow. Grant is provoked by a old prison inmate which sparks an all out brawl on the train. The cops show up and have no time or patience to deal with then. We are forced to see them go through some pretty brutal abuse from the cops. The cops are lead by the always great Kevin Durand who mainly provokes the chaos. We also see Chad Michael Murray as the more reserved but equally uptight cop. It’s tense, riveting and emotional stuff. Although you know its coming, it will still shock you to the bone.
The scene plays with your heartstrings, with strong reliance on Jordan’s talents to the very end. We grow to love him for all his good, and for all of his faults. It kills you to see his life taken away from him in such a unnecessary way. All I heard around me in the audience was sobbing and crying, and I would be lying to you if I told you I was sitting there completely unnerved. I was completely moved by the way that they showcased these events. You can’t help but feel devastated and moved. A lot of credit to Octavia Spencer who is as good as it gets as Grant’s mother. Melonie Diaz also gives fine work as Grant’s girlfriend. They build a strong network that help make us realize at what Grant will be leaving behind without his presence.
Fruitvale Station is one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and it’s one of the only films that has moved me in such a way. The film won both the Grand Jury and Audience Prize for U.S. dramatic films at Sundance this year. No surprise. You won’t find many films better than it this year. It’s hard for me to imagine Michael B. Jordan’s performance not receiving a nomination come Oscar time, as he is truly great in this. It’s going to launch the kid to stardom. The film itself may be a contender as well, but even if it’s not, it’s an unforgettable watch that should be remembered in many years to come.