Fruitvale Station is artistic, immediate filmmaking. It’s bold, direct, effective. To be able to say that about the debut of a 26-year old writer/director (Ryan Coogler) is rare. That alone makes Fruitvale something special.
Because of the heavy buzz it received at Sundance and Cannes you probably know the story by now: Coogler takes the tragic killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer and decides to make his film a fictionalized account of Oscar’s final 24 hours. It’s not a concept seen before countless times in films, but because of the subject matter Coogler is tackling it becomes an interesting choice. The natural approach would be to center on the shooting and the ensuing rage it sparked. But Coogler isn’t interested in politics. His film is about the life, not the death, of Oscar.
None of these are really spoilers. Fruitvale Station starts with real cell phone footage taken of the shooting. We know the tragic outcome from the start, which allows Coogler’s film to shift focus away from the killing and toward Oscar.
For this type of intimate portrait the brunt of the success falls on the shoulders of the lead actor. Michael B. Jordan (who Wire fans know as Wallace and Friday Night Lights fans know as Vince) delivers a performance that’s a charismatic, nuanced, emotional powerhouse. His turn here solidifies him as one of Hollywood’s very best young actors.
Coogler and Jordan introduce Oscar and his world to the audience and over the course of the film’s economical 84 minutes we experience and connect to it because it feels so real. The low budget, mostly hand-held style allows for the actors to breathe and connect in a real way. At the very start we meet Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and from frame one the chemistry, the rhythm Diaz and Jordan share is apparent. This is the first of many instances, those including an impromptu New Year’s celebration on the cursed BART train and a family get-together to celebrate a birthday, where the film’s cast, who are all superb, truly makes you forget you’re watching actors. Fruitvale Station beams with these moments of life throughout, so much so that you soon forget where the film is obligated to go.
From there we meet the other main players in Oscar’s life, his 4-year-old daughter Tatiana and his mother, who’s celebrating her birthday (the great Octavia Spencer). Through their interactions Coogler efficiently presents information to the audience about Oscar. He cheats on, but loves, Sophina, he lost his job and is back to selling dope, we also learn through the film’s lone flashback that he was in prison not too long ago.
All of these, along with numerous moments suggesting and/or showing the internal rage that Oscar is prone to unleashing, are pieces of a complex portrait of a flawed man. The film does give you direct moments to alert you that he’s trying to get better, but it doesn’t make him out to be a saint.
This all leads to the eventual shooting, which, by that time, you realize is only the catalyst and not the heart of this film. This is a film brimming with life and energy. From a critical point of view it’s the trickiest scene in the movie as gears shift and muscles tighten and you have to fear that it’s a point at which Coogler can undermine the beautiful scenes that have come before it. He doesn’t and that’s a big achievement. Overall Coogler barely has a misstep. There is one event involving Oscar and a dog that feels somewhat false, but that’s about it. It’s a truly remarkable debut.
I remember watching CNN after the terrible and devastating movie theater shooting in Aurora and Anderson Cooper would not say the name of the shooter and centered his whole broadcast around the victims and their families. Unfortunately, despite Cooper’s best intentions I remember the name James Holmes and I can’t name one of the victims. Thanks to Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, I will always know the name Oscar Grant.
Fruitvale Station is playing at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane in Austin starting today.