Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#19

29 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my favorite films of the past decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road

19) FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

The first time I saw Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” it broke me. Even when I knew how it was going to end, I still wasn’t ready for it. I was sad, angry, and frustrated that what happened at the end of this film actually happened in real life.

“Fruitvale Station” is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers within the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The murder was witnessed by the present transit passengers stopped at the Fruitvale station where it happened. Many of these onlookers recorded the incident on their phones and shared it online, sparking a ton of interest and controversy.

Before writer-director Ryan Coogler begins his dramatized telling of what led up to this event, he makes the bold choice of showing us a recorded video of the incident (and cutting it off just as we hear the gunshot).

“Fruitvale Station” was Coogler’s feature debut. He was a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Grant was shot and killed. Since then, he held a passion for making a film about Grant’s last day, with the intent of telling the story that you usually wouldn’t find in the media: who Oscar Grant was. Coogler met and worked with Grant’s family to learn more about Grant, and then he had a big opportunity in 2011 when Forest Whitaker decided to support the project when his production company was looking for new talent to mentor.

In 2013, “Fruitvale Station” premiered at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for drama, and screened again at Cannes before it was released in theaters in July. It received a ton of praise from critics and audiences, and it’s easy to see why. This is a terrific film.

And it introduced us to a truly talented director in Ryan Coogler, who went on to revive the “Rocky” franchise by taking it in a different direction before making a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that would challenge its audience (no, the other movie)–an impressive track record, to say the least!

All three of Coogler’s movies so far feature actor Michael B. Jordan, another great young talent who broke through this decade. In “Fruitvale Station,” he portrays Oscar Grant, a young parolee trying to stay out of trouble. It’s impossible to dislike him–he feels all too real, and it’s also to Jordan’s credit as a natural actor that we see him as a regular guy, flaws and all. He can get angry and impatient, but he also shows a genuine love for those who love him. When you make a film based on a real person, it’s easy to turn that person into a saint. But with “Fruitvale Station,” it seems Coogler was more focused on showing us who he was and who would miss him.

Nothing dramatic happens to Oscar in the day leading up to his death. He goes about his day preparing for his mother’s birthday party and a New Year’s night out with his girlfriend and their friends, and he’ll also spend time with his four-year-old daughter in the meantime. But there is something else to this day as well–he wants to turn his life around. He’s on parole, so he seeks to get a legitimate job–he was fired from a supermarket position, apparently weeks ago, and so today he’s trying to get his job back; and he even throws out the last of his drugs, which he was going to sell. He tells his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who isn’t very pleased that he’s been selling drugs in the time since he was fired, and he assures her that he’s going to find a way to keep going…and before they drop their daughter off at Sophina’s sister-in-law’s for the night before meeting their friends, Oscar tells Tatiana that they’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese the following morning…

Because we know how this story will end, each of these actions feel all the more meaningful and tragic because we know these are Oscar’s final moments of his life. The family and friends that Oscar interacts with are never going to see him again after this day.

What aids in the film’s effect is the use of handheld cameras to add some rawness to the proceedings, rather than rely on polished cinematography (which a lot of film-school graduates love to show off). And thanks to the first-rate acting from everyone involved (not just Jordan and Diaz but also Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother), “Fruitvale Station” both looks and feels real. When the incident finally occurs in the last 15 minutes of the film, even though I knew it was coming, I still wasn’t ready for it.

And…OK, let’s talk about the incident as it truly happened. The reason the BART officers arrived at the Fruitvale station to apprehend Oscar was because he was involved in a fight on the train with a thug he was in prison with. (Actually, they didn’t single out Oscar–they pulled off the train everyone they thought might have been involved in the fight.) The cops had their tasers out, pointed toward their detainees against the platform wall. One thing led to another, and Oscar was pinned to the floor by a cop who tried to arrest him for “resisting an officer.” He couldn’t reach Oscar’s hands, he unholstered his gun, and shot him in the back.

It was a time of confusion that led to ultimate tragedy. The officer who fired the shot was sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter after claiming he mistook his gun for his taser and released after 11 months. And the other officers involved were fired. All I can say is…that’s three less inept police officers in the world. Because, that’s what they were: inept. Whether Oscar disrespected them or not, that doesn’t matter. Whether the officer truly was reaching for his taser or not, that doesn’t matter. They panicked, they handled it all wrong, and they weren’t meant to be cops.

Whew. Glad I got that out of my system.

“Fruitvale Station” isn’t an easy film to watch. But it’s one that definitely made an impact on me. I will see it again a few more times, but it depends on the mood I’m in. But when I play the DVD, the ending has the same impact on me each time. And that’s why it’s on my decade-end top 20.

2 Responses to “Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#19”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#18 | Smith's Verdict - December 1, 2019

    […] Continuing my countdown of my favorite films of the past decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station… […]

  2. Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#17 | Smith's Verdict - December 2, 2019

    […] of my favorite films of the past decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) […]

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