FRUITVALE STATION Cast: Michael B. Jordan (Oscar Grant), Octavia Spencer (Wanda), Melonie Diaz (Sophina), Ariana Neal (Tatiana), Kevin Durand (Officer Caruso), Chad Michael Murray (Officer Ingram), Ahna O’Reilly (Katie) Written & Directed by: Ryan Coogler Rated: R The Weinstein Co.
I intended to write this review two weeks ago, when I saw Fruitvale Station in limited release. Two things occurred to prevent that – one ordinary: my babysitter cancelled, so bye bye writing time – and one extraordinary: George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin the very next day.
In the wake of the national outrage and protests and vigils, I thought my review of Fruitvale Station couldn’t help but be greatly affected. But as the film goes into wide release on 1,064 screens today, I realize I feel exactly the same about the film as I did two Fridays ago. Put plainly, Fruitvale Station is the most riveting, artfully-told, written, directed and acted movie of the year, it should win 2013 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, and every adult living should immediately make all efforts to see this movie and receive a mind-and-heart-altering reminder that every single person alive, no matter what sex, creed, color or age, has humanity that deserves recognition and respect.
The basics of the story are probably already known to most: Bay Area-based writer/director Ryan Coogler was deeply moved by the tragic shooting of fellow Bay Area native Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old black man who was killed at the Fruitvale BART Station by police on New Year’s Day 2009. Coogler wanted to show what Grant’s last day of life was like, so people would see not just a victim or a thug, but who and how Oscar really was. And not just the good or misunderstood parts of Oscar, but also the bad, the funny, the sweet and the ugly – and know he was a vibrant, complex being who in no way deserved the callous and all-too-common fate he received.
The movie opens stunningly with real cellphone footage of Oscar Grant’s murder. If you’ve never seen it before (which I hadn’t), it is gutting. I involuntarily burst into tears – I was just so sad and angry and shocked at the injustice – it took a lot to pull myself back into the movie and get to know Oscar in life as viscerally as I did in death. As much as it smarts, Coogler’s choice to start the film this way is brilliant, because it communicates powerfully the underlying truth of what’s to unfold – you may be watching a movie, but do not ever forget – THIS WAS REAL.
Fruitvale then segues into off-screen dialogue between Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) much earlier that morning. She is upset with Oscar because of an infidelity he tries in vain to explain away. As they get their young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) ready for school, we learn Oscar is a sweet, loving and permissive father (he sneaks his daughter the extra snack her mom said she couldn’t have) who sells dope sometimes to make ends meet.
As we continue with Oscar through the challenges and banality of his morning (stretching the gas in his tank before filling up, texting his Mom “Happy Birthday”, dropping his girlfriend off at work, picking up food for his mom’s party, worrying about rent) we learn he’s been in and out of prison several times and is struggling to get it together. Oscar, mind-blowingly portrayed and embodied by Jordan, comes off as equal parts charismatic, tough, caring and desperate. In one moment he is helping a customer in the deli where he worked figure out how to cook fish by putting her on the phone with his Grandma Bonnie; the next he is defiantly demanding/begging his ex-boss to rehire him. When he doesn’t get his job back, Oscar immediately plays it off with a co-worker, lies with a smile, and acts like it’s all good.
The code switching Oscar goes through in this one day – the subtly different-yet-specific ways he behaves and speaks with his daughter, his mom, his sister, girlfriend, his homies, his boss – is, I think, the key revelation of the film, and why this story is connecting with audiences everywhere. Oscar Grant, the young, black, ex-convict drug dealer is, surprisingly, an everyperson, dealing with the same contradictory bundle of human dynamics, dramas and relationships we all do.
When Oscar makes a pivotal choice to change his life mid-way through the film (after reflecting on time he spent in jail), he drops his tough-guy mask and confesses to Sophina that he lost his day job and has taken himself out of the dope game. When Sophina starts to go in on him (understandably – it’s clear she’s been through a lot with him), her strength and humanity shine through when a few beats later she forgives and supports him despite the immediate hardship his actions are creating. Diaz is perfect in this underplayed moment – Sophina, more than anybody, sees the vulnerable Oscar and whether or not she fully believes in his potential, she loves and respects him enough to support him on his stilted journey towards betterment.
A lot more happens in the movie before we get to the fateful moment on the BART platform at Fruitvale on New Year’s Eve 2008/New Year’s Day 2009, but truly, instead of reading a summary of it here, you should just go see it for yourself. Do let me say though that Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar’s mother Wanda… well, what she does in the movie is beyond deserving another Oscar (which, of course, she does). She should open up acting clinics and teach other actors how real people actually behave in extreme circumstances. If the viewers I was in the theatre with weren’t crying before, the way Spencer reacts to the news of Oscar’s death and her subsequent viewing of his body in the hospital caused an all-out, audible sob fest.
From beginning to end, the whole movie feels authentic, without a shred of manipulation. Though there is definite filmmaking throughout Fruitvale Station and filmic choices being made, they are seamless and only enhance the raw power and poignancy of the story. Even at a relatively short running time of 1 hour 30 minutes, I came out of the theater feeling as if I’d lived another life. And I did. I lived Oscar Grant’s life and was deeply, sorely sad it was gone. And the great thing – I wasn’t alone. The whole audience felt it for 90 minutes – black, white, male, female, young, old – we all felt like we were Oscar Grant.