It is a little eerie that as the Trayvon Martin case is expecting the jury to deliver a verdict in the next coming days that a film like “Fruitvale Station” should come out. For those who do not know, “Fruitvale Station” tells the story of Oscar Grant, a young man from the Bay area that was murdered in the early morning of New Year’s Day 2009 by a police officer. It is rare instances when art and current events intersect, but I’ll let you read a more eloquent take on that from my colleague Steve Pond and stick to the film here.
Great performances and a masterful closing thirty minutes elevate “Fruitvale” to what may eventually be one of the better films of the year, it also may be one of the most important films of the year, but a simple choice at the beginning of the film offers the only hitch in this otherwise excellently executed film.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January winning rave reviews and walking away with both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. A key part of that came from the performance of Michael B. Jordan. Months later the rumors prove true as the young star gives an undeniably strong performance as Oscar. He lets the best qualities of Oscar shine through, even when he is acting tough and getting himself into trouble, there’s always that hint of the man he is with his mother and daughter. This could easily make Jordan the young breakout star of the year and bring the Academy calling.
Former Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer also gives a wonderful supporting turn as Oscar’s mother. She serves as the guiding light for Oscar and her control and restraint in the intense scenes that she is in juxtapose brilliantly with the anger and passion of the other actors. Her last scene in the film, when everything has come to a head, is truly heartbreaking.
The scene mentioned above is the culmination of what I would say is the best half hour in any film this year. The fight on the train and the holding of Oscar and his friends are tense, chaotic and terrifying to watch; an accurate portrayal from first time director Ryan Coogler of what the events were most likely like for those present. Then when the shot is fired, things come to a near halt, and everything other than Oscar, his girlfriend, and his mother are pushed to the background. The chaotic nature of moments ago replaced by shock. It’s near perfect filmmaking.
While those final moments will go untarnished, a choice made by the director at the beginning of the film is hard to over look. After an exchange of dialogue over black, actual footage from Oscar’s arrest at the train station is shown up to the point of the gun being fired. It’s powerful footage to watch, but why include it there? Many people were likely to be aware of how the film would play out, but even if they are not revealing Oscars eventual fate left the hour that follows somewhat empty.
We watch a young man with a good heart trying to get his life back together, and seemingly make all the right choices, but we already know that it is all for not. I guess that leaves the argument for what is more tragic, knowing that everything Oscar does in the hours before his death will have no effect on his life or watching a person take all the right steps to bettering his life and then have it taken away unjustly? My take, we’re going to see the events later, let the audience see the man before they know his end.
“Fruitvale Station” runs through you like a freight train, and that’s the point. When dealing with something as tragic and significant as the events depicted, to do it right there is no soft way to handle it. Coogler realized that and he delivered, as did all involved. For their efforts, they made a film that should be mentioned in the same breath of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood.” Superb.