Arts Review, The Arts

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station featured image

Photo from thecoast.ca

Ryan Coogler, director & script

Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Oscar Grant), Octavia Spencer (Wanda, his mother), Melonie Diaz (Sophina), Ariana Neal (Tatiana), Kevin Durand (Officer Caruso), Ahna O’Reilly (Katie)

The buzz

The killing of 22-year-old African American Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009 by a white BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) policeman at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station achieved instant notoriety because the shooting was recorded on cell phones and immediately sent to people in the Oakland/San Francisco area and beyond. A clear miscarriage of justice, the tragedy provoked African-American graduate student Ryan Coogler to make this film, which is co-produced by Oscar winning actor Forrest Whitaker and co-stars another Oscar winner, Octavia Spencer, as Oscar’s mother.

When Fruitvale Station premiered at the 2013 Sundance film festival, the response was rapturous from both the public and film critics. It won the Best Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best U.S. dramatic film at Sundance.

The film’s European debut was at Cannes in May where it played in the prestigious “un certain regard” section. Fruitvale Station garnered yet another prize there, for Best First Film.

The genres

Docu-drama; character study; social-political critique on race and class in America (a longwinded genre!)

The premise

The film starts with a shock: the actual sequence of Oscar Grant’s killing recorded by a cell phone on New Year’s Day 2009.

Fruitvale Station’s narrative begins less than 24 hours earlier as Oscar and his long-time partner Sophina argue in bed about his recent infidelity with a local girl. Always charming, Oscar persuades Sophina that he’s reformed—and, as the film progresses, that seems to be true. Given the opportunity to sell marijuana, which has landed him in prison in the past, Oscar makes the appointment but unexpectedly dumps the grass into the ocean.

Over the course of the day, which is organized around cell phone calls, Oscar works on getting food together for his mother Wanda’s birthday party that night, takes his beloved daughter Tatiana to day care and back for her grandmother’s celebration, helps a random pretty white girl named Katie to get a recipe for soul food and tries unsuccessfully to get his old job back at a grocery store.

It’s a day in a life—unremarkable except for the ending that we know will happen. And the prodigious number of cell phone calls Oscar makes: to his mother, his girlfriend, a drug connection and various relatives.

The performances

Michael B. Jordan is all charm and insouciance as Oscar. A fine young actor, Jordan has already excelled in the TV dramas The Wire and Friday Night Lights. Given the chance to play the lead in an independent film drama, Jordan has seized his opportunity. He is brilliant in Fruitvale Station.

Octavia Spencer’s luminous eyes and clear forceful voice served her well in the role of a servant in the pre-Civil Rights South in The Help. Here, she plays Oscar’s mother who, with a tart tongue and a fierce pride, wants only the best for her sweet, unpredictable son.

Melonie Diaz. Melonie Diaz! One of the great unrecognized talents in American cinema, she’s been brilliant in supporting roles in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Lords of Dogtown. She has a natural gravitas, which gives authenticity to her performances, but Diaz can be funny and sexy, too. Once again, she provides superb support as Oscar’s girlfriend. Let’s hope she’s given more recognition for playing Sophina—but, sadly, I doubt it.

The direction and writing

Ryan Coogler has shown commendable restraint in this, his first feature film. He obviously “got it”: Oscar Grant’s death is such a volatile story that all Coogler had to do was quietly replay his tragic subject’s last day to galvanize audiences and critics.

Coogler shows that he has a fine way with actors, who, admittedly, were up for the challenge. How will he proceed from here? Who knows? But this is a fine first feature.

The skinny

Ok, you know that this film will not end well! But the story of Oscar Grant’s last day is interesting and the acting is superb. Not every film can have a happy ending. Fruitvale Station is worth a trip to your local cinema.

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