The story material might be more readily expected to be covered in a documentary of a true story of a senseless police shooting that took the life of an urban black man—instead it has been made into a powerful dramatic feature film in “Fruitvale Station.”
The first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler, who, at 26, is the same age his subject would have been today, puts the life of Oscar Grant on screen with conviction that makes it clear why Grant’s killing became a huge deal and the springboard between massive protest in Oakland.
The project’s topic, quality and presence of such Hollywood figures as producers Forest Whitaker, and Octavia Spencer, the latter whom plays grant’s mother, and insures that attention be paid and the film will certainly serve as a springboard for Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan and others involved.
Raw video footage at the outset presents but does not clarify what happened in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009. A few angry young black men are being subdued by Oakland police at the Oakland area Fruitvale BART rapid transit station. After some scuffling and a lot of shouting, what sounds like a shot is heard, but though there is nothing that seems to look to have even remotely warranted gunfire.
The film then rewinds several hours to New Year’s Eve which proves a window into the life of 22-year-old Oscar, who at this point is earnestly trying to pull things together in Hayward after a youth presumably pockmarked by the usual urban ills of gangs, drugs and bad influences.
Whatever his past transgressions, Oscar is very much trying to do the right thing by his girlfriend Sophina, daughter and mother, Wanda, a principal, religious woman who knows the score.
Coogler’s “Fruitvale” structure also jumps back to New Year’s Eve 2007, which finds Oscar being visited in San Quentin by his mother. Within an hour or so the film reasonably lays out the fabric of Oscar’s life, with the young man’s fundamentally positive spirit. He might fit an objective profile for a contemporary troublemaker – young, black, jobless, criminal record, bad neighborhood, unmarried with child, etc. And this description is what so easily fits the media especially in a high crime area such as Oakland. But digging beneath the surface, at least in this case, reveals a more complex and nuanced story that one presumes and hopes has not been sanitized in the cause of a good movie or in return for family cooperation.
Oscar plans to spend New Year’s Eve 2008 taking his family and friends across the bay to San Francisco to watch the fireworks and celebrate. His mother urges him to take mass transit rather than drive.
All goes well in the city, but an altercation starts in the crowded subway car on the way home that draws the attention of police and eventually spills out into the Frutivale Station stop platform, with utterly senseless and tragic results.
Coolger stages a chaos with a breath-shortening combination of frenzy and ambiguity, with the latter providing enough legal wiggle room for the cop to eventually get off with a light sentence, further the sense of injustice. It’s an awful tale, fraught with political, social and moral weight symbolic of numerous contemporary ills, and one with an unseen ugly aftermath of violent protest that further sullied Oakland’s reputation.
As Oscar, Jordan at moments give off vibes of a very young Denzel Washington, in the way he combines gentleness and toughness; he effortlessly draws the viewer in towards him. Melonie Diaz is vibrant as his patient and loyal girlfriend, while Spencer will probably win her second Oscar, just two years after winning her first, with the role of playing his mother.
If you only see one movie this month, do yourself a favor and see “Fruitvale Station.”