Produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi & Forest Whitaker
Released by the Weinstein Company
USA. 85 min. Rated R
With Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray & Ahna O’Reilly
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Julius Grant III, a black man and resident of Oakland, CA, was fatally shot in the back by a white police officer while cuffed and lying on the ground. This occurred at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station when Grant and his friends were on their way home from celebrating New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Grant’s death caused community outrage and riots as well as a media firestorm, greatly facilitated by the cellphone footage of the incident that circulated widely online.
But in the midst of all the anger and the politics, the reality of Grant’s brief life seemed to be very much lost in the shuffle. Ryan Coogler’s beautifully acted and sensitively dramatized debut feature seeks to excavate some of the details of Grant’s daily existence, and to give us a sense of the man. Obvious parallels can be drawn with the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial, which coincided with this film’s release last weekend. Though the circumstances are different, the underlying issues are sadly similar: stereotyped preconceptions of black males and overreactions by actual and self-styled law enforcement led to the deaths of two very young black men.
Fruitvale Station begins with the actual cellphone footage of Grant’s shooting. Our awareness of the eventual fate of the protagonist hauntingly hangs over everything we see, creating a sense of dread that simmers behind every scene. The film then backtracks to the final day of his life. At the outset, Grant (Michael B. Jordan) attempts to sweet talk and assuage his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), angry after he has recently been caught cheating on her. On this day, Grant seriously attempts to reverse the bad decisions that have plagued him up to this point. He has also recently been released from prison, and throughout we see flashbacks to his life there.
He struggles to be a good provider for his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), but he hasn’t made it easy for himself. He’s just been fired from his supermarket job for chronic lateness, and he returns there to unsuccessfully beg for his job back. This is a key scene, which complicates and enriches our view of Grant as an essentially good but deeply flawed person—the anger that flares up during his interaction with his former boss foreshadows the altercation that paves the way for his eventual death.
There isn’t much emphasis on plotting here. Fruitvale Station aims more for a documentary-like exploration of a day in the life, and as it unfolds, we learn more and are brought closer to its richly drawn portrait. Grant gallantly helps a customer at the supermarket arrange her planned fried fish dinner, even though he no longer works there. Later, he becomes quite emotional after witnessing the death of a dog run over by a car. Additionally, he really wants to quit dealing weed and has taken decisive steps toward doing so, but he’s afraid he will have go back to that if he can find no other way to earn a living. Grant has consciously put himself on the road to change his life for the better, which makes what happens to him later that night all the more tragic.
A major part of Fruitvale Station’s great impact is its performances. Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) ably carries this film on his shoulders, conveying Grant’s full dimensions with riveting and compelling force. Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s loving but long-suffering mother, also greatly impresses, especially in the latter scenes following the shooting where her character expresses grief and guilt.
First-time director Ryan Coogler has created a deeply moving tribute to a life cruelly and abruptly snuffed out. Coogler does so by focusing on the quotidian details that were by no means extraordinary or unusual, but no less worthy of empathy. He offers an alternative to both the deification and the demonization of Grant that occurred in the wake of his death, simply by presenting him as a person with flaws and foibles; in other words, as a fully three-dimensional human being. And in a media landscape that often denies young black men such a fully rounded view, Coogler has performed a valuable public service as well as delivered a remarkable and memorable film.