This intimate, personal perspective on Oscar's story illuminates the magnitude and cultural significance of his death in a way no news story ever could. Fruitvale Station will rattle you to the core.
On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant, a black 22-year-old Bay Area resident was pulled off a BART train and taken into custody by a police officer. Unarmed and defenseless, he was shot in the back and killed on the Fruitvale BART station train platform in front of dozens of passengers. The incident was captured on a cell phone camera and went viral, making national news. The shocking footage opens director Ryan Coogler‘s debut feature, Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of Oscar Grant’s last day on earth which aims to humanize the shamefully under-discussed news story by spotlighting quiet, ostensibly meaningless moments in his final hours. This intimate, personal perspective on Oscar’s story illuminates the magnitude and cultural significance of his death in a way no news story ever could.
The decision to open the film with the raw footage is brilliant, providing weighty context for every scene that follows. After the clip, we loop back from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve and the beginning of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) day. He’s bickering with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) in their bedroom, trying to convince her that a recent affair was a one-time-only mistake. Diaz and Jordan have real chemistry, and their speech dynamic feels natural. When their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) knocks on the door, and Oscar hurries to hide a zip of weed before letting her in. He clearly ain’t no saint, but who is?
Coogler’s unobtrusive camera follows Oscar throughout his day as we’re introduced to the pile of mistakes he’s accumulated. He’s lost his job at the grocery store, he’s an ex-convict (which we discover in an unforgettable flashback scene), and he’s got an explosive temper, but he clearly loves his family and is trying hard to shake his demons for their sake. His life is a mess, but he’s determined to clean it up.
Jordan respects the role and convinces us that he was born to do it. He embraces the ugliness of his mean streak while convincing us that he’s a caring family man deep down, a challenge that would be easily flubbed by most young actors. He’s got the chops to be truly great. Octavia Spencer is characteristically captivating as Oscar’s mother, Wanda Grant, a soft-spoken, caring matriarch with an exhausted patience for his bullshit (she’ll never forget how Oscar going to jail affected her granddaughter.) Still, she loves her son, so when he tells her that he and Sophina are going to San Francisco to watch the fireworks she thoughtfully suggests they take BART instead of driving.
Coogler’s passion for his subjects is felt throughout the film, and he shows that he’s a director of taste and discipline. The key to the film’s success is making sure we get to know Oscar as a person, and he keeps his priorities straight. There are occasional moments of high drama that jar the tone of realism (Tatiana clairvoyantly asking her dad not to get on the BART train is totally unnecessary), and the post-Fruitvale scenes feel a little bloated, but for the most part Coogler makes all the right moves.
Returning to the titular train station for the film’s third act is as terrifying as you’d imagine. Watching the raw footage the first time was hard enough, but now we feel like we know Oscar inside and out, which makes the reenactment of his death simply earth-shattering. The fact that this dramatization is somehow more gut-wrenching than the raw footage is a testament to the power of cinema.
When I got out of the San Francisco press screening for Fruitvale Station, all I wanted to do was rush home, kiss my wife, and tell her I love her. I darted out of the theater in a panic, a sense of urgency compelling me to walk faster, faster, faster. I wanted to get home so bad I could burst. Then, I remembered something that stopped me cold. My ride home? A BART train. Fruitvale Station will rattle you to the core.