Saturday, July 27, 2013
On New Year’s Day of 2009 a black, unarmed 22-year old Bay Area resident named Oscar Grant was shot by police while handcuffed at a BART station. The new film Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is the story of the last 24 hours of Grant’s life and a superb example of how art allows us to see the world through another set of eyes. Coogler’s first feature film doesn’t try to idealize its main character or make broad comments about young black men in America; it succeeds on its own small and richly human terms. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), who had spent time in prison, walks a thin line between a grocery store job and low-level drug dealing. There’s an early chance encounter with a shopper (Ahna O’Reilly) that reveals Oscar’s essential kindness, but in the same scene a conversation with his boss brings up the tensions that are squeezing this young man who is trying to do right. Michael B. Jordan has been good as mixed-up young men on television (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) but in Fruitvale Station he steps up to a fleshed-out role as a man who knows what he wants but who on some level doesn’t believe he can beat the odds. Jordan is an attentive partner to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, excellent) and a doting dad to young Tatiana (Ariana Neal), but the script’s urgency and our own knowledge of the real-life events make the scenes of Oscar’s temptation to return to drug dealing just as vital. I don’t think I have ever seen a scene quite like the flashback to Oscar’s jail time, when Oscar’s warm conversation with his mother (Octavia Spencer, who makes the most of little screen time) turns on a sharp edge towards violence and the realization that we all face the world with only ourselves for company.
Ryan Coogler’s version of the New Year’s Eve events leading up to Oscar’s shooting are all the more nightmarish for their banality. Fireworks, flirting on a train, and the quest to find a bathroom are markers of a happy evening and there’s a brief moment of partiers dancing on a train that’s a wonderful vision of American community. What’s saddest about Fruitvale Station is that in Coogler’s telling the events of Oscar’s last night, including a brush with the past, confirm Oscar’s suspicions about his life’s unfairness. Coogler wisely doesn’t relitigate the shooting, it’s presented as a confused and fatal combination of high tempers and frightened police. (I could have done without the distracting presence of Chad Michael Murray as a cop, though.) While most of the events of Fruitvale Station - a party, playing with children, the search for a birthday card - are the stuff of the everyday, what the movie gets right is that it’s in those things and Oscar’s family life where the meaning of his life lies. Ryan Coogler’s very impressive debut celebrates Oscar Grant’s life and includes a depiction of his death, not the other way around. The way Fruitvale Station makes a man out of Oscar Grant is a humane and heartbreaking triumph.