Film Review – Fruitvale Station
Watching Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, I was overwhelmed by a wide range of emotions: anger, confusion, and, above all, sadness. This was one of the more difficult film-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. The film recounts the true story of Oscar Grant, a Bay Area resident who was shot and killed by a police officer just after midnight on January 1st, 2009. This is delicate material, especially because the controversy over the Trayvon Martin case still lingers in the public conscience. But even without that, this is still a powerful story that screams out for answers that may not be there. The most difficult thing to grasp is that this is only one of the many instances of unnecessary tragedy, some of which are still happening at this moment.
The opening shot is a striking video of police officers handcuffing Oscar and his friends at the subway station for which the film is named. The scene is nerve-wracking, recorded on a cellular phone. This immediately puts us on edge, but before the scene hits its climax, Coogler (in his first theatrical release) quickly flashes us back to the morning prior, with Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) waking up and going through his day. Within this span of time, we see his activities revolve around his family: his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). His sole mission is to provide for all of them, but his criminal background matched with the recent loss of his job lays an undercurrent of pressure. Today his family has a home and food on the table, but what about next week? Or the week after that?
The premise is familiar: the underdog family man trying to make ends meet for his loved ones. There’s even a moment where Oscar sits by the ocean contemplating his life—this comes off as stagy and forced. But what separates the film from the rest is how Coogler (who also wrote the screenplay) manages to portray such a compelling character. Oscar is not deified, but drawn as a deeply troubled person who knows what he wants but doesn’t know how to get it. He has anger issues, dealt drugs, and was sent to prison. At one moment he can be charming, and at the flip of a switch become hostile. Added to the fact that he is a black man living a meager life in Oakland, the odds are already stacked heavily against him. It’s no wonder that some people (of any race) living near poverty turn to crime; the temptation to do so is persuasive.
Even with the final act, what we see of Oscar’s life is interesting enough, particularly between his mother and girlfriend. Both Wanda and Sophina obviously love him, but are aware of his tendencies and involve themselves with a heightened degree of caution. One of the best scenes is another flashback between Oscar and Wanda, where her frustration in seeing her son behind bars surfaces. Octavia Spencer is very good in her role as the devoted mother whose faith in her son is rock solid, but who can acknowledge that he must choose the right path or lose everything.
Michael B. Jordan has come a long way from playing Wallace in The Wire. This is a star-making performance, showcasing tremendous range. He is both tough and vulnerable, making a guy who can play with his daughter be the same person who can explode with aggression believably. Oscar is a complex character to perform, and Jordan creates him in a way where all his faults and potential are laid out simultaneously. It’s like a balancing act; he never goes too far in either direction, but encompasses everything within the same person. This is an actor who, if he wasn’t on the map prior to this performance, has placed himself firmly there, and deserves all the acclaim I’m sure he’ll get.
The third act is frustrating in how everything could have been avoided. From the first encounter with the authorities, everything went straight downhill, with dozens of spectators watching. Coogler presents it as matter of fact, documentary style. We witness the events like a procedural, and the closer we get to the end, the more we feel a dreaded sense of doom approaching. In general, I realize how difficult it is to be a police officer, who in a highly explosive situation is tasked to keep the peace and uphold justice. But the ones here clearly were not level-headed enough to handle it. They allowed something bad to get even worse, singled out only the people of color, and let panic and fear take over. All that’s left is heartbreak.
What can possibly be done to prevent something like this from happening again? Is there a solution? Fruitvale Station doesn’t provide answers, but forces us to confront a problem that seems to repeat year after year. This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an important one. It should be and needs to be seen.
Final Grade: A