In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22 year old Oscar Grant was detained with a group of friends by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officers in Oakland, California. In view of a crowd of onlookers with cell phones and digital cameras in hand, an officer detaining him shot Oscar in the back.
Fruitvale Station recounts the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life in a well-paced script with a powerful performance from one of acting’s best up and coming actors.
I was in a uniquely uninformed position going into Fruitvale Station. I had heard the headlines from 2009 but didn’t follow the case that closely. Adding to that, I wasn’t even aware of the movie until last month. Being a Michael B. Jordan fan from his work in The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Chronicle, I was very eager to see this movie.
Using text messages and phone calls as timestamps throughout the movie, we join Oscar as he goes about his day with time ticking closer and closer to his fate. We watch him deal with the stress of pleading for his job back and later making a difficult decision regarding how he’s going to pay rent and help keep his family financially afloat. His day is also infused with hope and happiness as he cares for his young daughter and celebrates his mother’s birthday.
The movie is driven by Michael B. Jordan’s performance, naturally. In that sense, it is vaguely reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, only less confined. Oscar interacts with others throughout his last day but he also has brief moments of solitude that are played very well by Jordan.
I won’t shortchange the supporting cast. Melonie Diaz gives a very memorable performance as Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend. Her scenes with Jordan help paint Oscar in a certain light that we don’t get from the rest of the film. Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother with gravitas and a strong emphasis on internalized pain that slowly builds until it comes out late in the movie. Jordan and Spencer’s scenes together are especially great.
One scene in particular is a flashback to Oscar’s mother visiting her son during a stint in prison. The two play off each other very well but it’s Jordan who’s the standout. Throughout their conversation, Jordan shifts effortlessly through a long range of emotions. He hits each emotional note perfectly as his temper begins to rise and then falls back as Oscar works to control himself. It’s a spectacular scene that sheds more light on the movie’s central character. It’s a very strong scene that deserves a hard look from the Academy come awards season.
Aside from the performances, first time writer/director Ryan Coogler showcases a knack for penning a tightly woven script in Fruitvale Station. Every scene in this 90-minute film bears startling importance to the character and the story being told. This is a talent that is sadly becoming a rarity in Hollywood these days. Things seemingly unconnected to the story early in the movie come back later in the film to create a bizarrely well-structured account of Oscar’s last day.
It isn’t perfect, however. Despite being incredibly well paced, I wish there had been at least a line of dialogue specifically explaining the circumstances of Oscar’s incarceration in the flashback scene I mentioned earlier. But Coogler’s work is still a strong example of storytelling brevity and strong characterization.
Fruitvale Station could reignite old conversations that were highly publicized in 2009. The timing of the movie’s release so close to the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial is a coincidence (at least, I don’t think it was planned) that continues to fuel the national debate. I don’t know how much of the movie is factually accurate and how much of it is artistic license for the sake of characterization, but the end result is a very clear picture of the man Oscar Grant was and, painfully, the man he hoped to become.
As a movie, Fruitvale Station showcases one of my favorite up and coming actors in a film that’s thought provoking, emotionally powerful and deftly written. It also serves as a bright display of talent for newcomer Ryan Coogler, whose strong presence on the page and behind the camera has me curious about where his career is headed.