Certain films beg for a reaction, not through genuine feeling or emotional attachment, but through manipulation of the audience. whether luring them one way and then yanking them the other, or by avoiding certain pieces of the story to create a final reveal you likely wouldn’t have seen coming — though you would have if you knew all the facts outright. Fruitvale Station had all the potential to be that film, to be just another manipulative piece of storytelling that fails its audience by using cheap storytelling tricks. But it’s not. Director Ryan Coogler’s provocative debut film is a bonafide drama fraught with feeling, and at times tension, that will tear your heart to shreds and fill your body with anger, disgust, and sadness. And it does so from the very first shot, one composed of grainy cell-phone camera footage showing the events that unfolded in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.
Chances are you’ve at some point heard the story of Oscar Grant, the man who was detained following a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train returning from San Francisco in the wee hours of the morning and then fatally shot by a BART police officer. Footage of the incident was disseminated to media outlets across the country, resulting in public outcry, mass protests, and riots. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant’s last day, focusing not only on the events directly leading up to the fatal incident but also working to tell the story Oscar Grant — not just the shooting victim but the man, who he was and who he desired to be.
Beginning with the end, the grainy cell phone footage of Grant’s tragic shooting death, the film jumps back to one night earlier, where his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) accuses him of continuing to sleep around with another woman. We find that Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) and Sophina have a daughter together, Tatiana, and that Oscar has an affinity for marijuana — smelling it, smoking it, he dabbles in both. But as events occur during his final 24 hours on this earth, he finds that he wants a different, better, more honest and respectable life, one his daughter can aspire to and experience.
As the story unfolds, we move back to the events previously scene at the beginning of the film, involving Oscar and his friends as they return home from a night of partying to celebrate New Year’s. Tension builds with each passing second as Coogler moves the story to its breaking point — an act of standing up for one’s rights, followed by panic, a pulled trigger, a loud bang, and an unflinching realization that one moment can alter the lives of not just one but many.
While many have made connections to Trayvon Martin and while this tale certainly evokes a similar reaction on the surface, I choose to look at Oscar’s tale as its own self-standing event, if for no reason other than a man deserves to have his story told individually. And so I speak to this case on an individual level: it is clear that Ryan Coogler knows what he is doing with his story, with the way he moves it and the way the dominos fall into place. But it never once feels manipulative. You grow to like Oscar as a person and see the type of man he aspires to be, and you recognize that he continues to fail at keeping the promises he’s made to himself and to others. Would it have been different this time around, would he have changed? I don’t know; no one can say.
What I can say is that Michael B. Jordan plays his part to perfection, showing the clear inner turmoil ruminating within Oscar’s heart and soul. Jordan plays a complex, multi-faceted man, one who works to stay true to his street lifestyle but who also has a family and wants to make the sacrifices necessary to give his daughter and girlfriend all he can. He is a good friend, a great father, and a caring human — and Jordan displays all those things — but he also can’t help but screw things up and put himself in bad situations.
Another great performance comes from Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother, Wanda. Oscar-nominated for her work in 2011’s The Help, Spencer serves as a rock in hard times and does all she can to keep her family, and especially her son, alive and well. She is the ultimate nurturer but has a side that says “I can only do so much for you”, forcing Oscar to finally realize the life he needs to start living.
With fantastic performances, a solid story, and a heart that beats loud, Fruitvale Station is the story of a man cut down before he could stand back up. It serves as a dramatized biopic, a morality tale, and an instant heart-wrencher. You are sure to leave the theater with mixed feelings of anger, disgust, and sadness, and don’t be surprised if, while sitting in your seat, you find a lump developing in your throat, barely able to squeeze out a breath. This is one of the summer’s finest releases, certainly not a blockbuster or an instant-classic comedy, but emotionally-charged storytelling that evokes — and deserves — both reflection and reaction. Simply put, it punches you in the gut for all the right reasons.
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use
Runtime: 85 minutes