This is a film that should be seen by everyone. It is powerful with a message that rings on multiple levels. It is dramatic, chilling, and above all else, human. There are standout performances and first time feature director Ryan Coogler has crafted an intimate day-in-the-life picture that is haunted by the audiences knowledge of the true life tragedy that awaits.
In 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed on the Fruitvale train station platform by a police officer while he was face down and handcuffed. There was a media frenzy afterwards helped in no small way by the footage of the event captured by bystanders on their cell phones. The officer responsible claimed that he thought he had reached for his stun gun and instead pulled his actual gun. He was convicted of manslaughter and served 11 months. Cries of injustice were heard around the world and much was made of the black youth killed by a white police officer factor. There is no way to know what the officer “intended” during that moment on the train platform. Meaning can not be given where there is none and there is no chance of knowing what was in someone else’s head. This film doesn’t dwell on the race angle, nor does it dwell on any reasons at all. It is more subtle, choosing instead to let you feel your own emotions and let any outrage fall where it may.
Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar Grant in a performance that is mesmerizing. He is organic in the role and feels authentic in every scene. Oscar has had a troubled past and seems ready to be the boyfriend, son, and father he needs to be. Jordan portrays this all while alternating between a street tough persona and the introspective youth. I vaguely recall him from the film Chronicle, but I will remember him now. This is a star making turn that reminded me of the way I felt watching Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. He will be a force to reckon with.
Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz are the supporting players and bring genuine warmth to their roles. Melonie Diaz is Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of their child. She is convincing in her indecisiveness. She toggles back and forth between outrage at Oscar’s behavior and falling for his charm in a way that seems all too real. Anchoring the film is Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother. She is earnest and makes the audience believe that she has been waiting for that phone call for years. She tries to hold everyone up as her world is crashing down and it is heart wrenching to watch the grief take hold. All three main actors should be remembered come award season time. All would be deserving.
Ryan Coogler directs using a hand held style reminiscent of Narc and this gives the film an immediacy that benefits the documentary-like feel. He is trying to evoke a perception that only facts are being conveyed which is a debate that can not be addressed by the audience. What we are given is a 22 year old who has to face his past decisions and either live up to his responsibilities or slip into past behaviors. This is the character we have and Coogler wastes no time building our affection for him. Fruitvale Station would be an excellent addition to anyone’s resume and is all the more startling for it to be a debut.
I watched this movie with dread. At the beginning of the film we are shown the actual footage from Oscar Grant’s shooting. It haunts the rest of the picture and allows tragedy to seep into every scene. Oscar’s interactions with his daughter are tear inducing because we know what’s coming. The longer the mundane day goes on and we watch Oscar creep towards his demise we are reminded that we have no such warnings in real life. Tragedy strikes all too suddenly and without reason. We are left to examine our own lives and wonder what a film about our last day would look like. Therein lies the beauty of this film.