Fruitvale Station (2013)

25 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fruitvale Station” is one of the strongest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s an effective, tragic, well-done account of the last day of the year 2008 and the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III. For those who don’t know, Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was celebrating New Year’s with his friends when he was shot and killed by police at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. The event was recorded by bystanders on their cellphones and uploaded online, leading to international outrage.

Ryan Coogler makes his feature debut with “Fruitvale Station,” a film based on the events leading up to the incident. It’s obvious Coogler cares so much for the subject that a film about it would have to be done exactly right. And thankfully, he knew how to tell the story. The film is presented in a straightforward way, as if the viewers are innocent bystanders or eavesdroppers as Oscar Grant III goes about his day, not knowing it will be his last. It’s an effective process.

The film begins with actual footage of that incident on the platform, as police brutally pin him to the ground, people shout “hey” and “let him go,” and the cop brings out his gun. Then the film starts, as it’s a dramatization of the day that led up to the incident. Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) is just going about his day—spending time with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), looking to regain his job after having lost it, calling his mother and wishing her a happy birthday, finding her a birthday card, buying seafood for his grandmother’s gumbo, eating dinner and chatting with family, and more, with only one flashback showing that Oscar was once in jail for dealing drugs.

The first half of the film is just an ordinary day in Oscar’s life, but what makes it all tragic is that we know something important that Oscar doesn’t—whatever he does on this day is going to be his last. We know how it will end. He doesn’t. That makes a moment in which he tells his daughter goodnight before he and Sophina set out for a night out with friends—he promises to take her to Chuck E. Cheese the next day, but we know it’s not going to happen.

Then comes that night. Oscar, Sophina, and their friends ride the train, party before the countdown to New Year 2009, come across a couple pleasant people to talk with, and then they step onto the train leading to Fruitvale Station. A fight breaks out when Oscar comes across a hateful ex-cellmate, leading to the arrest of Oscar and his friends on the platform, leading to…

“Fruitvale Station” may be more about Oscar’s final day than it is about Oscar himself, but we do learn a few things while in his company. We know some things about his past, we see how his year in prison makes things uneasy for his mother (well-played by Octavia Spencer), we see his good qualities, we see his bad, we see him interact with people who love him. It’s enough for us to get a good sense of who he was, and Coogler is careful not to present him as a heroic type but as a many-sided human being. Oscar was a regular guy who had his problems but also had people who love him and would miss him. It’s a compelling portrait of such a man who befell a case such as this, and it also leads to one of the most brutal, uneasy scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. When the climax arrives, it’s a truly effective tough case of police brutality and even tougher to stomach as it was based on a true event. Though it also makes you think—do you think anyone would have even remembered Oscar’s name if he wasn’t killed the way he was?

“Fruitvale Station” is never manipulative (even a scene in which Oscar helps a young woman at the grocery store decide which fish to buy is convincing), and even when you think it’s going to be (such as when he helps a dog who just got hit by a car), Coogler finds a way to effectively roughen up the scenes, keeping with the consistency of the film which feels gritty and realistic. He’s aided by an excellent actor in the role of Oscar Grant III. Michael B. Jordan turns in a star-making performance, giving a powerful portrayal of a young man who goes about his day, not knowing it’s his last. He, along with the nontraditional cinematography and solid supporting cast, adds to the compelling nature of “Fruitvale Station,” a film I will not forget anytime soon.

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