Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Ariana Neal | Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler
For many of us the reason we travel to the movie theater is for a few hours of escapist entertainment. Movies can be a place where we can discharge from the trials and tribulations of reality for a few short hours. Entertaining the masses is a motive that is certainly worth achieving, but there are times when films attempt a higher purpose. That is certainty the case with Fruitvale Station, which recounts the tragic true life tale of Oscar Grant III. Considering the boiling racial temperament that has gripped this nation with recent events, like the controversial George Zimmerman trial, it is a movie like Fruitvale Station that can provide an insight that no by-the-book news story ever could. Capturing the zeitgeist in this way may propel it to a level beyond its own doing, but even if you were to remove the timeliness you are left with a gripping story powered by an amazing leading performance that will leave you emotionally exhausted. Unquestionably for me Fruitvale Station has earned the title of 2013’s first must see movie of the year.
Oscar Grant is a name that comes with a heavy and devastating connotation. For those unaware Oscar was tragically shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009 by a police officer who reportedly mistook his gun for his taser. The entire event was captured on a multitude of cellphone cameras, and immediately sparked endless amounts of outrage. Now little over four years later first time director Ryan Coogler is revisiting the event with his poetic telling of Oscar’s fateful last day. Using Oscar’s real life phone records and text messages as his framework Coogler reimagines that now infamous final day. It is a day that by all other accounts would have gone unnoticed by most, but the inevitable conclusion that awaits transforms an everyday decision into a pronouncement of a legacy.
When you are dealing with a story like this there are some inherent questions and challenges. There have been situations where victims of tragedy were bolstered into hero status when in fact their moral standing may have been more questionable than people were lead to believe. Fruitvale Station is not a story about a hero—it is a story about a man—really it is a story about a boy still trying to discover what it means to be a man. Coogler paints a complex picture of Oscar with multiple dimensions and angles. We see the good hearted nature of a loving son willing to go all out for his mother’s birthday, a young father who loves nothing more than seeing his daughter’s smile, and a person who appears to be a beacon of joy for those he is around. On the other hand you also see a father who is still ignorant to his own responsibilities. At times he appears more concerned with having a good time rather than doing what is necessary to support his family. His criminal past has never really left him, and he is still questioning if he wants it to.
By showing Oscar with all his flavors and all his faults Coogler legitimizes the film—making it more than just window dressing on a catastrophe. Never does it appear like he is attempting placate to one side or the other. He is simply telling a moving story about a man attempting to find his place in his world. For someone who is directing his first feature film it is astounding how strong of a hold Coogler has on this story. His technical skills may not be quite there yet, and his over reliance on the handheld camera does get tiresome. Nevertheless, his ability to get to the heart of this story is something few directors would have the capability of doing. The easy comparison would be something similar to what John Singleton did with Boyz in the Hood in the early nineties. However, Fruitvale Station has an elegance to it that Boyz in the Hood never did.
What is also powering the film to such a high level is the phenomenal performance by Michael B. Jordan. It is a performance that is certainly one of the best of the year thus far. Jordan has the boyish charm that becomes infectious. You can’t help but fall in love with his free spirit demeanor. He also can turn that persona on a dime and become that hardened individual full of anger and confusion. A flashback scene that involves his mother visiting him in prison is a telling tale of his capabilities. What starts off as a friendly visit quickly turns as he allows the rage within to win out. Coogler gives Jordan a lot of room to maneuver. He spends much of the movie in deep reflection as he pontificates on where his life is exactly headed. Jordan knows how to draw the audience in, causing you to completely invest into this character. I would not be surprised if we hear his name called when award season rolls around.
Fruitvale Station is an example of why I love movies, and why it is such a powerful format like no other. A person like Ryan Coogler, who was working with imprisoned youths just a short while ago, can use it to tell a story that is important to him and so many others. Fruitvale Station is complete unadulterated human drama. Coogler clearly took some liberties with the story, and in that process he did fall victim to some rookie mistakes. In the final moments he attempts to connect pieces a little too cleanly, which in some ways hurts the random nature of the act that horrifically ended Oscar’s life. Luckily, those rookie mistakes were few and far between. I cannot think of a recent film I had a stronger emotional reaction towards than this. It will leave you with an overwhelming sense of frustration. To Coogler’s credit he never attempts to use that frustration to point you at a cause. Some may see that as a lost opportunity. I see it as a deeper understanding for what this movie truly represents.