Fruitvale Station is a highly impressive debut from 26-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler. It's made with skill and confidence, evoking sensitive performances from everyone involved, even as it treads controversial ground, especially in light of the recent Trayvon Martin ruling in which George Zimmerman, accused of killing an unarmed black teenager, got off scot free. The way Coogler tackles this similar material is not to make a politically charged statement about what happened to Oscar Grant, but to depict the last day of this 22-year-old's life by using a highly personal, intimate, and small scale docudrama approach, which has the effect of gutting the audience emotionally and thereby leaving the most powerful impact of all.
We have one day to get to know Oscar Grant, the young man from Oakland who was shot and killed by a white police officer in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. That may seem like not enough time to get involved with who he is, his problems and his feelings, but the small slice of life we are provided with is infused with so much detail, a vivid evocation of time and place, and three great performances that bring a sense of real energy and authenticity to the story. Michael B. Jordan is the lead, and in what should be a star-making performance, he manages to convey the charisma that makes Oscar so popular with his friends and family, as well his hotheadedness and reckless behavior that has already landed him a couple of convictions for drug-dealing in the past. Oscar isn't whitewashed or made into a saint- he's a nice kid with potential, who's nevertheless troubled and saddled with a girlfriend and a 5 year old child at a young age, struggling to make it in a working class life that hasn't offered him many opportunities.
Octavia Spencer is terrific as his mother, who loves Oscar unconditionally but is exasperated and worried about his choices. She manages to convey so much emotion and underlying concern with just her eyes in this film- there's a scene where she subtly but firmly convinces her son to take the train rather than drive if he's going to be drinking, and she comes across as a mother who has accepted Oscar the way he is but is still trying in a kind of mama bear type way to protect him in any way she can. The last great performance in this movie is Melonie Diaz as Sophina, Oscar's girlfriend and the mother of his child. She's incredibly natural, girlish and unpretentious in the part, as we see her at times alternately annoyed, charmed by and devoted to him, even as we see his tendency to fool around on her revealed in his flirtations with other women and her anger at past indiscretions.
By the time the climactic showdown on the train station rolls around, we are enwrapped in Oscar's life and feel that we know him, his problems and his friends- the final scenes of police abuse and the shot that ended his life are filmed in a chaotic manner, with the train passengers capturing every moment with their cell phones. These scenes are made more powerful by the film's opening shot of the real video that captured the actions taken by those police officers. As Oscar dies after we have gotten to know him, there's a sense of tremendous waste having taken place. Look, would he have gone on to become President? Almost certainly not. Would have ended up back in jail? Possibly, but maybe not. The point is that whatever life he was going to carve out for himself, belonged to him and was only just beginning- and the pointless action by which that life was taken away is a tragedy and a crime that, as we now know, befalls more young black men for no reason at all in this country, and is still an issue that has not progressed the way that our civil rights battles of the past would have you believe. By making this film and giving audiences white and black a personal connection to the life of one of those young men, Coogler brings the best kind of activist awareness to the world that any one filmmaker can. It's an important movie that needs to be seen.
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