2013 is proving itself to be the Year of the Writer/Director. Shane Carruth gave us his sophomore effort, Upstream Color. Jeff Nichols dazzled audiences with Mud while Derek Cianfrance gave us an intense crime film about fathers and sons in The Place Beyond the Pines. And now, in the waning days of the summer blockbuster season, Ryan Coogler gives us his feature film debut, a 90-minute gut punch of an indie movie, called Fruitvale Station.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Grant), a 22-year-old African American man from Oakland who was killed by transit cops in San Francisco during a 2008 New Year’s Eve skirmish on a subway platform. To establish its non-fiction credentials, Fruitvale Station opens with real footage of the incident shot on a cell phone from a subway train. The dull crack of a handgun discharging sends a murmur through the crowd of bystanders, and before the opening credits roll, the audience knows that something has gone terribly wrong.
To its credit, Fruitvale Station does not canonize Oscar Grant, and his life is unveiled on the screen, warts and all. Oscar has served time in prison, but still keeps marijuana stashed in his bedroom. He can’t get to work on time and conceals the fact that he lost his job two weeks earlier. He’s a loving father to his daughter, Tatiana, but continues to fail his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). He seems like a good guy who can’t get his act together and join the rest of the grown-ups in the real world. We know people of all races who are just like Oscar, and the familiarity makes the film resonate all the more.
We follow Oscar through his efforts to get his job back and plan a birthday dinner for his mother. Along the way, he silently renounces a life of selling drugs and throws a bag of marijuana in the ocean. Oscar and Sophina plan a night of partying and fireworks in San Francisco to ring in the New Year. We know it’s a celebration that he will never return home from.
The performances in Fruitvale Station are uniformly excellent. Michael B. Jordan portrays a man who is both troubled and affable, someone who sees his shortcomings and genuinely wants to do better. In a lesser performance, Oscar Grant might have seemed like a street hustler looking to get over on people while pursuing a low-level life of crime. The nuances of Michael B. Jordan’s work avoid these pitfalls. His Oscar Grant is charming and frustrating, a real man with potential who wants to stop making bad choices.
Octavia Spencer proves that her Oscar win for The Help was no one-hit wonder. She gives Wanda a quiet power and resolve that can command an entire room. Her scenes visiting Oscar in prison and at the hospital after Oscar’s shooting are both heart-breaking and inspiring. It’s difficult to know how much of a film is based on truth, but Octavia Spencer presents Wanda as a woman of faith who believes in a better life for her family than the one they find themselves living. Spencer makes the most of her minutes on screen, and it’s her performance that will stay with you for days after you’ve left the theater.
Despite all of these accolades for the cast, Fruitvale Station has its problems as a film. The foreshadowing of Oscar’s death is a bit heavy-handed. His goodbyes with his daughter and his mother as he heads out for a night of partying in San Francisco seem more protracted than they would have been. He expresses reservations about going out and suggests to Sophina that they simply stay home instead. The audience is made to wonder what life might have been like if she had agreed. As he fills his car at a local gas station, a stray dog is hit by a car and lies bleeding on the pavement just as Oscar will be a mere twelve hours later.
These lapses seem to be a desire by Ryan Coogler to give us symbolism and metaphors in a film that simply doesn’t need them. The story of Oscar Grant’s final hours is powerful without these narrative devices. In fairness, the writer/director had no way of knowing that his film would debut a mere week after the Trayvon Martin verdict, exponentially increasing its impact on audiences.
In a summer of overblown budgets and bloated running times at the multiplex, Fruitvale Station is a lean, mean reminder of the state of race relations in this country, the power wielded by law enforcement and how a simple incident can have deadly consequences when firearms are involved. Its matter-of-fact tone hits on these political hot buttons without ever preaching to its audience. Fruitvale Station exposes our larger societal problems by simply focusing on one man who wanted to turn his life around and was never given the chance.
8.5 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.