Review: ‘Fruitvale Station' a moving tale of a life lost too soon
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 4:49 p.m.
Before delving into the heart of what makes “Fruitvale Station” such an important and effective movie, we need to dispense with the political baggage surrounding it. This is a movie in which a black teenager in Oakland, Calif., is shot and killed by a white police officer at a train station. It's based on a true story; a jury convicted the officer of involuntary manslaughter, and he was sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served about eight months before being granted parole.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
In terms of the movie, however, the politics of what happened are secondary. The great strength of “Fruitvale Station” is that it presents the shooting as a horrific tragedy on the part of real people, not a case of the system beating up on the powerless. It's impossible to come away from the movie without the feeling that Oscar Grant should still be alive and that the officer absolutely deserved his sentence, but “Fruitvale Station” is not out to sell a “message” or start a revolution. What it wants, what it demands, is conversation and introspection.
“Fruitvale Station” is shot primarily in the format of a documentary. With the exception of cellphone footage of the shooting at the beginning (the footage is extremely disturbing, all the more so for the lack of the blood and guts most movie violence entails) and some documentary shots at the end depicting a rally a few years after the shooting, the movie takes place almost entirely on the last day of Grant's life. We see him take his young daughter to preschool, plead for his old job back, go to New Year's Eve dinner with his family ... all ordinary, humdrum activities.
This is not to say “Fruitvale Station” makes Grant out to be a saint. A brief flashback details his earlier stay in prison on drug charges, and in desperation Grant comes very close to making another drug deal before having a last-minute attack of conscience. Furthermore, we see several instances where Grant lashes out in anger at figures in authority, which likely played a role in his death.
What makes “Fruitvale Station” work is that writer/director Ryan Coogler (an Oakland native) and his cast show how normal Grant is, how he could've been anyone. A lot of this comes from the frankly extraordinary performance of Michael B. Jordan as Grant. Jordan has been flitting around the periphery of TV for a while now with roles on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” but here he makes a superstar leap straight into the realm of Oscar contention. It's equally mesmerizing to watch Jordan as Grant smile and play with his daughter as it is when his eyes go dark and you can see the rage coiling within before it erupts.
His standout scene comes during the prison flashback. His mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) is there to visit him, and Oscar is all warmth and smiles. As soon as she brings up his girlfriend and daughter, you see the first flicker of anger cross his face, but he controls it. As the scene escalates, you can feel his anger grow even as he struggles to keep it under control, until suddenly he can't and is wrestled to the ground by the guards.
To their credit, Jordan's co-stars play off his performance with aplomb. Melonie Diaz, playing Grant's put-upon girlfriend, has what could've easily been a cliché screeching harpy role, but she convincingly sells how hard it is to love someone who keeps screwing up their own life. That goes double for Spencer as Grant's mother, who knows it doesn't take much for young black men to end up in jail. Spencer does a fantastic job balancing the love Wanda has for her son and the sternness she feels she has to exert to keep him on right path, and the scene where she first sees her dead son in the hospital will rip your heart out.
If there's one significant flaw with the movie, it's the overly heavy foreshadowing. We already know what's going to happen, but Coogler for some reason feels the need to up the tension anyway by dropping a few foreboding hints along the way; it's just unnecessary. There are also a couple subplots that don't really go anywhere, which distracts from the thrust of the narrative. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, however, “Fruitvale Station” does what none of the stories surrounding the case did: put a face to the name of those who die every day due to hasty, tragic decisions.