On January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III was a man riding a subway, ringing in the new year. Within an hour Grant would be shot in the back by a police officer; Grant was lying unarmed and face down at Fruitvale Station. Several onlookers captured cell phone videos of the incident and the story went viral. Fruitvale Station chronicles the last day of Oscar Grant and what really transpired that day. The film garnered much-warranted praise at the Sundance Film Festival and its release this July coincided closely with the George Zimmerman verdict. Like the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, the death of Oscar Grant raises social issues of race, law and justice.
While Ryan Coogler’s masterful directorial and writing debut does not shy away from such issues, to watch this film expecting just social commentary upon social commentary would be a mistake. News and media coverage turned Oscar Grant into a symbol, Coogler is able to take deconstruct the symbol and flesh out the man. He presents a film constructed in objective melancholy rather than blind anger.
At the heart of Fruitvale Station is the performance from Michael B. Jordan. There must be something in the name, because this man is destined for stardom. Some people may recognize Jordan from his extensive TV resume, notably as Wallace on The Wire and most Coach Taylor fans will remember him as Vince of Friday Night Lights fame. Jordan does not hold back in his portrayal of Grant; he pulls out all the stops on this one.
Grant is in no way deified in the movie — we see all the angles of him from him cheating on his wife to him losing his job and dealing drugs. In contrast, his relationship with his daughter may be the sweetest and most heartwarming parent-child performance submitted in years. Although it may be a lofty juxtaposition, I believe that Jordan compares to Denzel Washington with his ability to transition from the gentle father playing with his daughter to the severe and serious moments on the subway. Jordan nails the charismatic smile, creating a likable, but complicated Oscar Grant.
Any review of this movie would be utterly incomplete without mention of the performances from Melonie Diaz as Sophina, Grant’s wife, and Octavia Spencer as Wanda, Grant’s mother. Many will recognize Spencer from her Oscar winning performance in The Help and I would not be surprised if this performance helped add to her Oscar collection. Spencer provides a great balance to Jordan’s performance as she is able to portray Wanda as a tough-talking mother who has a commanding presence who seemingly keeps Grant relatively in check. Finally, Ariana Neal shows incredible promise in her role of Tatiana, Grant’s daughter. The final scene of Sophina and Tatiana is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in recent memory.
Of course there are some flaws with this movie: some heavy handed scenes and blatant foreshadowing feature as well. But to focus on that would be to miss Coogler’s objective. This film could have easily been about the consequent trial and prosecution or even just a real time film of the events on the subway. However, Coogler chooses to focus on the little day to day things: picking up his daughter, driving over to his mother’s house and heading out to the city to party with friends. Coogler pays ultimate respect to the man Oscar Grant III, mirroring humanity with its complexities and contradictions. To be obsessed with whether the real-life Oscar Grant resembled at all the man that is presented in the film or whether those were the exact events of his last day would be to misunderstand Coogler’s intent. The movie’s main goal is to force us to remember that no matter what happens in those ninety minutes, it is going to end up with a man lying face down with a bullet in his back.
If I had to sum up my feelings about Fruitvale Station in one sentence: it is the greatest movie that I never want to watch again. The opening sequence is the raw footage of the shooting, immediately eliminating any possible suspense. The suspense is replaced with utter helplessness. The audience is not allowed to imagine any other ending; we must sit in our chairs and watch in anger and horror about the inevitable tragedy. The film is strung together with an underlying tone of this impending, unavoidable heartbreak. I am not one to cry, but this movie had me balling several times even before its conclusion. Completely ignoring the film’s brilliance in terms of classic cinematography criteria, it in itself is an incredible accomplishment.
Do yourself a favor and watch it.