Fruitvale Station begins with a tragic, life-ending event. In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shoots 22-year-old Oscar Grant.
Working from a simple concept, the hour-by-hour re-creation of the day that preceded Grant’s death, writer-director Ryan Coogler provides intricate details about the young man and father whose life will soon be over. Those details raise Grant’s death beyond the news reports and protests that followed.
Coogler’s nuanced portrait of Grant, containing qualities as well as flaws, gives the man and his fate dimension and poignancy. Moviegoers get to know Grant, or at least the Grant that Coogler so effectively realizes on the screen. The loss becomes personal.
Grant is no angel. He’s sold drugs and done time in San Quentin State Prison. He lost his job a few weeks before New Year’s Day because he kept showing up late. He’s not honest with his family about losing his job. A hot temper may be his most dangerous flaw. In Fruitvale Station, he explodes into rage on multiple occasions.
Balancing Grant’s undesirable traits, he is a loving father to his 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. The tenderness he shows to T, as he calls her, reveals a different side of the man who, in a flashback, berates his own mother when she visits him in San Quentin.
And Grant is a kind and sensitive, if perhaps not faithful, boyfriend to T’s mom, Sophina. Paradoxically, his meek acquiescence to the wishes of Sophina and his mother figure in his demise.
In Michael B. Jordan, Coogler made a wonderful choice for an actor to play Grant. Jordan’s already extensive credits include Redtails and TV’s The Wire, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. The range he displays in Fruitvale Station is such that Grant’s gentleness, love, anger and frustration are all seamlessly real on screen and believable within the same human being. It’s an Oscar nomination-worthy performance.
Coogler, a 26 year-old filmmaker from the East Bay Area, illuminates Grant’s story in almost documentary, even cinema verité style, the most naturalistic form of documentary filmmaking. The storyteller in Coogler includes events and conversations that anticipate Grant’s death, notes of dread that eerily allude to what the audience already knows will happen.
As direct and non-sleek as the movie’s camera work and storytelling is, performances in the film have a life of their own. In addition to Jordan’s both warm and searing portrayal of Grant, Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for 2011’s The Help, has a supporting role as Grant’s mother, Wanda.
In contrast to the understandable outbursts of grief from the relatives of crime victims seen so often on south Louisiana’s local TV news broadcasts, Wanda shows towering yet very human grace and strength in the face of her son’s troubles.
Fruitvale Station, a Grand Jury Prize winner for dramatic feature and Audience Award winner for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is among the most powerful films of the year. It’s also an impressive launch for the film’s young writer-director and a signal that the film’s lead actor will be a major presence in American film.
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