I’m not gonna lie, folks: This is going to be a tough review. It’ll be hard for me to write, and it may be hard to read. Then again, if the movie isn’t going to spare your emotions, then why should I?
Fruitvale Station is based on the real-life story of Oscar Grant III. More specifically, it’s based on what happened to him on New Year’s Day of 2009. The movie even goes so far as to open with an actual cell phone video of the event, which… you know what? Just watch it for yourself.
The facts are these: Only a few hours into 2009, police responded to a fight on a crowded BART train in Oakland. Oscar Grant and three of his friends were removed from the train and detained at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. At roughly 2:15 am, Officer Johannes Mehserle (the movie never mentions him by name) shot Grant through the right lung. After seven hours in ICU, Grant died.
Numerous video recordings of the shooting were soon brought to light, and protests broke out all over San Francisco. As the film shows us at the end, memorials are still being held at Fruitvale Station to this day. Anyway, the officer who actually shot Grant was charged with Murder 1, but the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter when the officer claimed that he meant to reach for his taser. The officer was sentenced to two years in prison, and was released after eleven months.
Remember, that’s eleven months in prison for killing an unarmed 22-year-old black man. This film tells the story of the victim.
It’s interesting to note that this happened just after America had elected its first black president. So many said that the election heralded the end of American racism, and then this shit happened. Also, Fruitvale happened only two years after “Don’t tase me, bro!” became a national catchphrase, so the issue of police brutality was already a hot topic (compounded further by the UC Davis pepper-spray incident in 2011, I might add). Even better, the movie came out mere weeks after George Zimmerman was famously allowed to walk after shooting Trayvon Martin. None of this context is mentioned by the film, and the Trayvon incident was obviously too recent for the production to comment on, but I feel that it’s important all the same.
Getting to the film itself, any discussion of this movie must begin and end with Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Grant. Yes, Octavia Spencer turns in powerful work as Grant’s mother, Kevin Durand has a brief yet fiery turn as one of the corrupt cops, and we’ve also got some great performances from Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal as Grant’s girlfriend and daughter. Even so, this is Jordan’s show from start to finish.
The movie dramatizes the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life, though the movie briefly flashes back to 2008, when Grant was in prison. Yes, it turns out that Oscar was a convicted drug dealer. Additionally, we quickly learn that he’s cheated on his girlfriend at least once, he’s too unreliable to keep a steady job, and he’ll lie to his loved ones for the sake of his injured pride.
Even so, it’s not like Oscar’s a bad person. He’s a very devoted father, he cares deeply about his family, and he’s desperate to get his life back on straight for the sake of his loved ones. Unfortunately, he has a bunch of relatives who are all in need of money at a time when Oscar can’t even take care of himself. Maybe it’s fate, maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s Oscar’s own personal failings, or maybe it’s any combination of the above, but Oscar simply can’t seem to get the foothold he needs to start fresh. His only option is going back to drug dealing, but that just leaves him in a “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” situation.
Of course, we’ve all seen underdog characters like this before. Plus, the film is quite deliberately weak in structure, content to show one event flowing into the next without any visible direction. However, there are two essential reasons why this movie still works.
First, there’s Michael B. Jordan. The guy’s best known as one of the main leads in Chronicle, but that’s about to change mighty quick. This film presents Oscar Grant as a hopeless fuckup, a devoted father, a loving boyfriend, a caring son, a tough punk, the list goes on and on. There are so many different facets to this character, and Jordan plays every single one of them with panache. The guy is so charismatic and likeable that you want him to succeed, though he’s still tough enough that you could buy him as a gangster.
My favorite example of Jordan’s performance has to be the prison flashback, when Oscar gets a visit from his mother. At the start, he’s all smiles and nostalgia, catching up with his mom and wishing her a happy birthday. Then another prisoner interrupts and Oscar picks a fight. His mother is ashamed of him, which elicits remorse from Oscar, which finally leads to more violent outbursts when mom gets up and walks away. So many different aspects of the character are explored in that scene, and Jordan nimbly jumps from one to the other. This is the stuff that Academy Awards are made of, folks. This guy is a star, mark my words.
Then there’s the other reason why this film works: That opening. Starting the movie with a cell phone video of the actual event was a genius move in so many ways. For one thing, it reinforces the point that all of this really happened and we’re learning about a guy who really died. More importantly, there’s the fact that the movie presents us with this knowledge at the outset.
Before we see a single frame, we know that Oscar Grant is going to die. We know where he’s going to die, we know when he’s going to die, and we know how he’s going to die. Without that foreknowledge, the plot would be incoherent and completely directionless. But with that opening, we know that the film is heading relentlessly in one direction toward a very certain ending. This is Oscar Grant’s life, and we’re watching it end one moment at a time.
That knowledge provides the basis for the film’s tragedy, and it makes the whole movie captivating. When we see Oscar kiss his daughter goodbye, we know that they’ll never see each other again. When we see Oscar laughing over a homemade dinner, celebrating his mom’s birthday with all of his loved ones, we know that’s the last meal he’ll ever eat. We see Oscar struggle to make ends meet and try to be a better man, but we know that his efforts will all amount to nothing and the opportunities he has will all be wasted. We see the characters make choices and statements throughout the film, only to see them struggle with the guilt of those actions when the inevitable finally happens.
But of course, the characters themselves don’t know any of this. They’re just living out their lives with the assumption that tomorrow will be just another day. Until it isn’t.
I’m sure that writer-director Ryan Coogler (here making his debut, courtesy of producers Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer) set out to make a film about police brutality, racial profiling, social inequality, and so on. To be sure, a lot of that comes through in the movie. Still, I personally think that the film works best as a reminder of how fleeting life is. Something crazy and unexpected could happen in the next 24 hours, and there’s suddenly a toe tag waiting with your name on it. We should all count our blessings and make the most of what we have, because there’s no telling when it all will end.
If the film has any failing, it’s in the camerawork. In general, the cinematography does a great job of depicting Oakland through a cinema verite style. Unfortunately, there are a couple of rare and brief shots when the approach goes overboard and the camera gets way too shaky. Of course, that’s only a minor nitpick.
Fruitvale Station left me with the kind of emotional gut-punch that reminds me why I love movies in the first place. Through Michael B. Jordan’s star-making performance and Ryan Coogler’s prodigious filmmaking, the film succeeds as a masterful portrait of a young man who was taken from this world too soon. This is a movie that was specifically made to shatter your heart into a thousand pieces, filling you with grief for Oscar Grant and all those like him.
This picture demands to be seen. I can’t possibly recommend it strongly enough, just so long as you brace yourselves ahead of time.