^ Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station”
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With the George Zimmerman trial and cries of justice for Trayvon fresh in our minds, “Fruitvale Station” could not come at a more appropriate time. It won’t ease the current emotional swell, but it will help further the conversation.
At 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 2009, Oscar Grant, a twenty two year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a transit cop as he lay face down and partially restrained on the platform of the subway stop of the title; a tragic end to a buoyant and hopeful evening as Grant and his friends tried to make their way back to Oakland from a sojourn across the Bay to see the fireworks.
Much of the inexplicable act was caught on cellphone video. The cop later said he meant to draw his Taser and was sentenced for manslaughter, but that’s not what drives this movie. The shooting may be what ultimately defines it; still, Ryan Coogler’s explorative lens is more concerned with the odyssey of a young man struggling to go right in a world stacked against him—a world that he had a hand in skewing, and yes, it’s about race too.
Coogler begins with some of that fateful cellphone video. Then he fades out and rewinds to earlier in the day, following the events that lead up to the tragic moment, in the process absorbing the essence of the person Oscar Grant. “Fruitvale,” while it uses a smattering of real footage, isn’t a documentary per se but a dramatic recreation. Smart casting employs Michael B. Jordan to breathe soul into the memory of Oscar with Academy Award nominee Octavia Spencer as the loving, but stern mother.
Jordan, whom you might recognize from TV’s “The Wire,” has a long sad face with sleepy kind eyes; a bit like our old Celtic hero, Paul Pierce. For most of the film the camera hangs tight on that mug as Oscar drives around in his car or lingers in his kitchen, wondering, contemplating, torn and wanting to do the right thing. What confronts Oscar is his past — also his present situation. He’s just surrendered his run-around girlfriend and committed to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a young daughter; but then there’s the revelation that Oscar’s somewhat recently out of jail and he’s just lost his job as a butcher for being tardy too often. He desires to succeed in a straight up fashion and doesn’t want to go back to dealing dope, but how to make ends meet? It doesn’t help either that he keeps Sophina and his mother in the dark about his recently changed employment status.
“Fruitvale” bears the tag of “based on true events,” but Coogler, who was a USC film student at the time the project began (Forest Whitaker is one of the producers) and is approximately the same age as Grant and Black as well, never takes liberties with the license afforded him. If there’s any heavy-handedness it’s the rather contrived Black and White interaction : for example, the white-bread blonde who’s initially apprehensive when Oscar approaches her in a hoodie in a supermarket offering her tips on “fish fry” (she later happens to be on the train that night when the altercation goes down that triggers the unnecessary shooting). There’s the racist inmate who, during visiting hours between Oscar and his mother, drops a few F-bomb and N-word couplings and worse—moments that feel forced and unnatural, though they ultimately help fill the bigger canvas.
The true power of “Fruitvale” permeated through its quiet, reflective moments, as introspective players grapple with their own failures and with the outside influences that have negatively impacted their lives. John Singleton applied the same nuanced approach to “Boyz n the Hood.” Not bad company (and a fellow Trojan as well). The concluding frames of “Fruitvale,” as Oscar’s family and friends cling to slim hope, wrench the conscience. Loss of life is universal, no matter what color you are. Coogler knows this and articulates the moment with profound affect.
—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies