From the opening frames of “Fruitvale Station,” you know you’re in for a film full of dread and heartbreak. Based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American living in Oakland, Calif., the film begins with video captured by a cell phone on New Year’s Day 2009. The footage shows Grant at the Fruitvale train station, face down on the floor with a Bay Area Transit Police Officer on top of him. The video ends with Grant being shot in the back by the officer. He died later that day.
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Fruitvale Station” chronicles Grant’s final 24 hours of life. A convicted felon, Oscar is trying his best to be a good father and a good man. He wants his relationship with his girlfriend Sophina to work, he’s making an effort to be a positive influence on his daughter and he’s trying to get his job at a supermarket deli back, something he’s too proud to admit he’s lost. As the day goes on, we get quiet glimpses of the man Oscar really is; he comforts a dog in its dying moments after being hit-and-run by a car, plays with his daughter after daycare and he jokingly buys a birthday card with white people on it for his sister. Despite his past, Oscar Grant is a good man, and working on getting better.
That’s what makes “Fruitvale” so unbearably heartbreaking. As Oscar’s life seems to turn a corner for the better, the knowledge of the tragedy to come gives everything leading up to that fateful moment at Fruitvale Station a horrible, grim feeling.
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler, a 26-year-old making his feature-length debut, handles the race relations in “Fruitvale” with a keen eye, making sure to present things as is, instead of pushing the narrative too far in one direction or another. Shooting with mostly hand-held cameras, Coogler lets the story do the talking for him instead of manipulating the cinematography to manipulate what’s on screen. I’m not sure how close to the facts “Fruitvale” is regarding Oscar’s final day of life, but as presented, it seems like an honest portrayal of life as an African-American male. When Oscar offers to help a white woman with an order at the deli, she instinctively takes a step back. Instead of being offended, he takes it in stride and helps her anyways, even going so far as to call his grandmother for help. Its just another day in the life for Oscar. Michael B. Jordan, who impressed in “Friday Night Lights” and “Chronicle,” is nothing short of electric as Oscar. One second he’s a gentle, loving son to his mother, the very next a ferocious tiger, ready to defend himself at all costs. Its breathtaking to see how fast he goes from one end of the spectrum to another.
“Fruitvale Station” is an important film, taking on even greater relevance given the recent trial of Trayvon Martin in Flordia. A wake-up call to anyone unaware of what its like to be a young African-American male in America, “Fruitvale” makes it clear everyone deserves a chance to lead a good life regardless of skin color, and how quickly things can come crashing down if people give in to their fears, especially regarding race.