“Fruitvale Station” is an emotionally charged homage to Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black male killed by an Oakland transit police officer on New Year’s Day, 2009. The film tells a riveting story of a troubled, but amicable man seeking a better life.
Possibly the biggest star emerging from “Fruitvale” is writer-director Ryan Coogler. His sure-handed direction fully captures the complexity of Oscar’s life and his storytelling ability strikes emotional gold (it’s a tearjerker for sure).
The opening scene is actual cell phone footage of the incident taken by an onlooker at the Oakland train station. The sheer authenticity of the scene creates chills and captures the chaos of the ordeal (footage obtained by a local news outlet can be seen here).**
Most of the film focuses on Oscar’s life preceding the incident, particularly his last 24 hours. In a limited time frame, Coogler somehow manages to capture the highs and lows of Oscar Grant III.
The acting adds even more to the film’s excellence. Michael B. Jordan (No, not the MJ that won six NBA championships and starred in Space Jam) plays the deceased 22-year old with surprising credibility. Jordan nails Oscar’s personality, depicting a troubled but loving father trying to straighten his life out.
Other standouts include Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar’s mother Wanda, and Melonie Diaz who plays Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina. None of the performances are over-the-top or dumbed down, making for genuine interaction between characters.
Another factor that makes the film seem so sincere is the cinematography. With filming taking place in Oakland and surrounding areas, audience members get the full extent of an area known for well-documented for its problems with violence and poverty.
Drive-by shots capture the bustling street corners, which are occupied by an African American majority. These sequences briefly raise the issue of race and prejudice inside the minds of those who feel unwelcome when riding through cities.
The film’s sole pitfall is its slightly diluted script. Most instances seem natural, yet some appear censored in representing Oscar’s character and surroundings. Coogler’s ability to incorporate bright spots of Oscar’s life—his loving girlfriend, supportive family, and bright little girl, Tatiana—while still pointing out certain flaws such as his time in prison, job loss and weed smoking habit is a particularly bright spot. The plot keeps a good pace by balancing the emotional highs and lows of Oscar’s experiences.
The most impressive characteristic of “Fruitvale Station” is its scope in tackling a complex character and his untimely demise resulting from culture clash. The ending details the events of the 2009 New Year’s Day shooting with intensity that rivals any action movie climax. Maybe even more hair-raising than “The Avengers” (please feel free to spam hate-mail for that one).
Police (who are notably all white) arrive and detain Oscar and several friends (who are notably all black) for a fight that occurred on the train. Oscar and others argue about being held by what appears to be racial profiling.
The final result: a lot of yelling, some damn excessive police action and a bullet in Oscar’s back. Then, stunned silence.
Oscar becomes a martyr for racial injustice and prejudice. The cause of his death is strikingly similar to that of Radio Raheem, a black male killed by police in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Both films push forward the issue of racial coexistence and urban violence by highlighting tragic deaths. “Fruitvale Station” may ring even more poignant and prevalent because it is based off a real event and a real person.
“Fruitvale Station” may not be flawless, but it stands as a brilliant achievement for budding stars Ryan Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan. Screened at both Sundance and Cannes, “Fruitvale Station” received near universal approval among critics and audiences. Very few movies balance emotional storytelling and racial commentary quite like this one.
Currently screening at the Athena, “Fruitvale Station” is definitely worth shelling out a few bucks to see.
Speakeasy Grade: A
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
** Viewer discretion is advised.