Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American father, was the tragic victim of a racially-motivated homicide. No, he wasn’t killed in a gang-related incident. Oscar Grant was a man doing what any one of us would do on New Years Eve: celebrate with friends and family, hopeful that the next 365 days would be the greatest ever. But because of the color of his skin, Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a young white police officer on January 1st, 2009 at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California. The footage was captured on cell phone video for the world to see, exposing racism in the 21st century at its most brutal and shattering our trust in the men and women who promise they are on the “right side” of the law. We cannot reverse the fate of Oscar Grant, and it may even be fruitless to hope that something as sickening as this event won’t happen again. But what we can do to honor Oscar Grant is learn about the man he was, someone who was more than just a face on YouTube that millions of subscribers saw as a victim, first and foremost. And so enters 27-year-old director Ryan Coogler with Fruitvale Station, a stirring portrait of a young man that wanted to please those he loved right up until the horrific end. Carried by the sensitivity of Coogler’s direction and the sincerity of Michael B. Jordan’s phenomenal portrayal of Oscar Grant, The Weinstein Company’s Fruitvale Station will touch many hearts across the country before arriving at next year’s Academy Awards® ceremony.
Fruitvale Station begins with Oscar Grant trying to put his life back in order. Unbeknownst to his daughter, girlfriend or mom, Oscar has just lost his job at the local grocery store and does everything he can to get rehired by his boss. The reason behind Oscar’s firing: tardiness. Although it isn’t mentioned, you feel the aftereffects of 2008’s economic collapse. Because of the limited amount of jobs available, there are no second chances, especially if you’re someone of color. Oscar has a large bag of marijuana tucked away in-between his oversized shirt and jeans that he plans to sell. Does he continue on this path of crime to provide for his family, or does he confess to his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), that he doesn’t have all his ducks in a row like he pretends to? A beautifully inserted flashback sequence of Oscar in prison, visiting with his mother, Wanda, (Octavia Spencer) who is on the verge of giving up on him, supplies him with the answer he seeks.
The remainder of Oscar’s day, as we all know, spirals out of control and into darkness. Following his mother’s birthday bash, Oscar and Sophina head out with some friends to San Francisco by way of BART, the subway train that will take them to and from their destination. On their return trip into Fruitvale Station is when life as Oscar Grant knows it turns askew. A former prison inmate Oscar recognizes on the train attempts revenge, but Oscar and his friends avoid the entanglement by getting lost in the sea of passengers. However, the outbursts of shock from the train’s patrons attract the station’s police unit, who subsequently round-up Grant and the rest of his African-American companions. The rest, we’re painfully aware of, is history.
Coogler doesn’t sugarcoat the encounter; instead he lets it play out at close, claustrophobic proximity. The instigating Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand) and eventual murderer, Officer Ingram (Chad Michael Murray), are as cruel and unwilling to listen to reason as you’d expect. But there’s also something even more we notice in their behavior: fear. Especially in the eyes of Ingram, you get this sense that he pulled the trigger because he truly believed his life was in danger, that he thought he was simply following protocol when Grant tried to defend himself with words. This discovery is even more heartbreaking, as you realize that many ignorant white officers are trained to view minorities as the enemy, a danger who must be put down like an animal if they bark just a few times. We thought this backward mentality had long ago faded away, but Oscar Grant’s murder is proof that we have a long ways to go before society dissolves itself of such unnecessary hatred. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station gives us one of the biggest reality checks since Paul Haggis’ Crash, in that racism — intertwined with fear and ignorance — is still very much a part of our cultural makeup.
Ryan Coogler uses his familiarity with Bay Area life to create a world that feels instantly comfortable, safe, lived-in and communally exhilarating. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison aptly relates Coogler’s vision to the audience. There’s a slightly rustic and grainy quality to the film, as if this is a community with a deeply-rooted history, perhaps not the cleanest in the neighborhood but certainly an inviting one. The use of handheld shots and numerous close-ups provide us with a sense of intimacy, much like what Ben Richardson’s cinematography did for last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. We feel as much a part of this world as Oscar Grant does, as his family and friends do. Coogler’s script adheres to the language and culture that shapes this district of the Bay Area, making Fruitvale Station a more organic moviegoing experience than a purely sensational one. Unlike other auteurs whose sole purpose is to show off their “moves,” Coogler never condescends or patronizes as a filmmaker but demonstrates enough artistry to make him a keeper in the industry.
The performances in Fruitvale Station are naturalistic yet undeniably powerful. If Michael B. Jordan comes off slightly affected, it’s because Oscar Grant was a performer, going above and beyond to please his loved ones, hiding from them the hurtful truth of his mistakes. Like Coogler mentioned in the Q&A following the LAFF screening of this film, Grant has a different relationship with each member of his family. His mother is his conscience, his daughter (Ariana Neal) is a gift he can’t stop playing with or cherishing, and his girlfriend is the best friend that makes every day an instant joyride. Jordan understands the nuances in Grant’s character, and demonstrates that even through his faults there is still an inherent goodness and likability. Octavia Spencer as Wanda is nothing like her sassy yet strong-willed Minny from The Help. As Wanda, she is the raft that keeps the family afloat and centered. Even if she has to resort to tough love or is forced to put on a brave face while those around her are breaking down in tears, she does so dutifully. Spencer perhaps needed one extra scene to solidify a nod, but her exquisite performance in Fruitvale Station makes her a strong candidate for “Best Supporting Actress” at next year’s Oscar© race.
Melonie Diaz — what a find! I have never seen any of her work, and I imagine I’m not the only one who’s turned an unintentional blind eye to her career. Melonie Diaz is an emotional force of nature that manages to emanate strength, compassion, and genuine love with aplomb. Coogler and Diaz create one of the strongest Latina characters on film in ages with Sophina. Let’s hope such a deftly written/acted role for the Latino community is not the exception to the rule from here on out. I sincerely hope that Diaz is given the appropriate awards campaign for “Best Supporting Actress” alongside Spencer.
But it’s Coogler who impresses me the most of anyone involved in this project. The last 25 minutes of Fruitvale Station are some of the most gripping of the year. The hospital sequence, in particular, is filmmaking at its most gruelingly honest. The way Coogler paces the scene, freezing time altogether as we wait to see if Oscar will make it, is instrumental in keeping us absorbed throughout. Although we know the real-life story of Oscar Grant, Coogler’s direction superbly employs the magic of cinema to make us think that perhaps, by some will of whatever spiritual force is out there, he’ll survive. The prayer scene and the moment that immediately follows afterward is a masterful example of editing. Why stretch out what we know is coming and manipulate the audience into holding on to false hope? Coogler conjoins the scenes perfectly, accurately reflecting reality in that sometimes miracles don’t happen and we have to just accept this as a fact of life. Thanks to a stunning directorial debut, Ryan Coogler will likely (*fingers crossed*) find himself in the lineup of “Best Director” nominees during 2014’s Oscar® ceremony. I hope (and believe) the Weinstein Company will campaign the heck out of Coogler all throughout the awards race.
If there’s one thing holding Fruitvale Station back from a perfect score, it’s that I wish there were even more scenes added about Oscar Grant’s life pre-BART catastrophe, especially ones highlighting his relationship with mom, Wanda. For instance, I would have loved the prison scene to stretch out even further, thereby deepening our understanding of this unique yet familiar mother-son bond. Nonetheless, Fruitvale Station is one of the ten best films I’ve seen so far this year and is right now the closest thing 2013 has to a “Best Picture” nominee. Be sure to check it out when it hits theaters on July 26th, 2013.
Here’s another glance at the film’s trailer: