It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.
The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.
The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.
“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.
We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.
Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.
Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.
“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.
The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.
There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.
* * * * out of * * * *