Every so often as a critic you get the opportunity to witness a film that’s so ingrained in your experience that it becomes difficult to even comprehend how you feel about the film. On one hand, Fruitvale is a rich, if slightly problematic, retelling of the day in the life of Oscar Grant, the Oakland man who was shot by police officers on New Year’s Day 2009. On the other is innate sense of personal relevance. I can still tell you exactly where I was sitting when I heard about him getting shot, the worry on my parent’s (and to speak the truth, all Black parents) faces that something like this could happen to me (their children), and the anger, not just African Americans, but most Bay Area residents felt when the officer who shot him was only sentenced to two years jail time. There’s no way to divorce those experiences from watching a film like this. However the movie doesn’t ask you to, it just wants you to be in the moment as it tells it’s story. For those reasons, Fruitvale is a feat of movie making, something that operates well within the medium and invites you to bring your emotions along for the ride.
For anyone not familiar situation at hand, Fruitvale catches you up right at the beginning with the actual cellphone footage from the incident. It’s a harrowing thing watching that video. I was sinking in my seat the second it started playing, but it gives you the knowledge up front where the movie will go and an extra poignancy to the narrative. From there we rewind back the clock and watch Oscar go along his day. He picks his daughter up from day care, goes to the grocery store, argues with his family, speaks with random people on BART and on the streets of San Francisco. These are human experiences, something anyone of us could have done today, which helps keep us from eulogizing Oscar too soon. But this is a tragedy, and as the movie proceeds you can’t help but feel the dread. The movie spares us nothing when it hits its crescendo at the Fruitvale BART station, with Coogler’s camera and the performances keeping’s glued to the tale and eventually reduced to puddles of emotion by the end.
For anyone familiar with Friday Night Lights, you won’t be surprised to hear that Michael B. Jordan gives a humanistic, vibrant performance. He could probably read the phone book and have you think it was the most engrossing thing you’d ever heard. In Fruitvale, he’s got the swagger and cadences down to let you know he’s from the Town (Oakland for the uninformed). But much more importantly, he explores every facet of Oscar Grant. He’s not afraid to show us the positives and negatives of Grant, from the love he has for his daughter to the frightening convict side when he confronts his former employer to the complicated, but calming relationship he has with his mother. Oscar is a man perpetually in conflict with himself, someone trying to do right by the people in his life but who can’t make the leap in one step, something Jordan’s plays beautifully.
Octavia Spencer and Melanie Diaz are wonderful as two of the most important women in Oscar’s life. Spencer trades in Minny’s outbursts and showiness in The Help, for an incredibly subdued performance here. Even when you expect the character to explode after her son is shot, Spencer instead goes for quiet, soul crushing realness. Diaz though, threatens to steal the show every time she’s on screen. She’s real from the first time she appears on screen cursing Oscar out for cheating to the end when she’s struggling to tell her daughter about what has happened to her father. It’s such a naturalistic performance that it just seeps into the pores of the film and you can’t help but enjoy Diaz every time she’s onscreen.
Ryan Coogler’s direction and writing are both bold and conservative at the same time, leading to mixed results. Flashing up what the phone says/who Oscar is texting on screen is a superfluous addition and annoyed me every time it happened and there are some interesting ideas brought up regarding how African Americans, especially those who have been incarcerated, are viewed even in a place as diverse as the Bay, that aren’t full explored. However the script, and the movie, soars when it stops trying to be about Oscars death and instead focuses on celebrating life and culture. Coogler, a Bay Area native himself, imbues the film with such a sense of place, you don’t need to be from the Bay area in order to understand just how rich the culture is there. It’s in the Mac Dre song they dance to on BART, the clothes Oscar wears (those tall tees!), the language the characters use, and the places we see. You’ll not get a film more thoughtful about how the characters speak and interact than this film, Coogler’s characterizations are so sharp. Coogler maybe be a first time filmmaker, but you can’t accuse him of not having a strong sense of how he wants to tell the story. There’s no pretense to him, only the last 10-15 minutes show the shooting and death, and even when he throws in some emotionally manipulative elements it never wrings false.
Fruitvale is a film I will likely not forget anytime soon and something I’m sure will spark lots of discussion. Regardless of your closeness to the situation or your feelings by the end of the film, this is an important movie and Coogler is one of the bright new voices in cinema.