“Fruitvale Station” is a deceptively simple film. It’s presented as a straightforward, slice-of-life feature about Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young man in his early 20s. There’s nothing particularly special about him. He has a girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he’s going through a bit of a rough spot at the beginning of the film. He also has a four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), whom he loves very much and does everything he can to care for.
The film takes place on New Year’s Eve 2008, which also just happens to be Oscar’s mother’s birthday, so most of Oscar’s day will be spent making preparations for not only his mother’s party, but also for a gathering of friends who want to ring in the new year. This is a very special day for Oscar as well. We’ve learned that he’s had a somewhat troubled past, which has involved being in prison, so he decides to attempt a fresh start for the sake of his family and friends. Despite having lost his job at a local grocery store, his day goes rather well. Little did he know that something terrible was in store for him that very night.
I mentioned up top that this is a simple film, but don’t take that the wrong way. It starts off rather slow, causing the audience to try and figure out why the film was made and why we should be caring about anything going on, but after a while, you begin to realize that it’s painting a portrait of this man who attempted to change his life only to have it come crashing down. It’s rather hard to avoid spoilers given that the case made national news. That, and the fact that the real-life footage of the incident is played at the beginning of the film.
The incident, as it occurred that New Year’s Eve, involved an encounter with someone that Oscar had known from prison. The encounter on the train leads to the police being called, which is where the situation really starts going wrong. The cops who respond to the call are arrogant, abusive, and completely drunk on their own power as they deal with Oscar and his friends. Minutes later, one of the cops pulls a gun and shoots Oscar. He died later that morning from the wound.
“Fruitvale Station” becomes a celebration of his life and of Oscar’s desire to turn things around for the better. He cares deeply for his girlfriend, his daughter, and his mother (Octavia Spencer). So much so that he’s willing to give up selling drugs to focus on finding honest work. This story could really have been about anyone, but it just happened to be about Oscar and the last few meetings he had on the last day of his life.
Aside from his friends and family, we witness complete strangers that he encounters including a young woman at the grocery store he used to work at who is trying to find fish for a fish fry she’s trying to have. Oscar, in all his politeness, offers to help her choose the fish, and even goes so far as to call his grandmother to give her advice. Oscar’s generous attitude is echoed later on when he encounters a man and his pregnant wife. The wife desperately needs to use a bathroom, so Oscar convinces a shop owner to let her in to do so. Was this positive, benevolent attitude always with him, or was it a factor of his attempt at turning things around? We don’t have much to judge it on, but I suppose we would like to think that he was always this way. Either way, we at least get to see how good-hearted he was before the end.
The film also becomes a condemnation of police brutality. It’s rather shocking to learn that the officer who shot Oscar simply had to use the excuse of confusing his gun with his taser to get two years in jail (he was released in 18 months). As you can imagine, this sparked an outrage in the community. Riots and protests spread all over the Bay Area. We’re even shown a bit of actual footage from a gathering on New Year’s Eve of this year at Fruitvale Station, where people gathered to remember Oscar and others like him who lost their lives.
Driving the film are the outstanding performances from the cast, particularly those of Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer. Jordan is mainly known for his television appearances, but he has recently turned to film, having starred in films like “Red Tails” and “Chronicle” just last year. His performance as Oscar is a star-making turn. He comes off as such a natural performer that you sort of forget you’re watching a movie, especially with the slow, slice-of-life approach. Then there’s the amazing Octavia Spencer, recent Academy Award winner for her outstanding performance in “The Help.” She brings such an emotional power to her role as Oscar’s mother Wanda that you can’t help but feel the pain she goes through when his life is a wreck and during his final hours.
The same can be said of the film itself. It doesn’t make it hard to form the emotional connection to these characters, which is even more amazing given the film’s brief running time of about 80 minutes. Much of that is filled with mundane activities, but you slowly begin to realize just what it is that writer/director Ryan Coogler is doing. He does it so subtly that you may not even realize until near the end that you actually care about what happens to Oscar. Many directors have trouble accomplishing something like that even when they’re throwing character development in your face. To be able to succeed by using a standard “day in the life” approach just makes it all the more incredible, and makes “Fruitvale Station” a must-see. 3.5/4 stars.
Now playing in limited release.
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