Without the verdict of the Zimmerman trial now etched into our nation’s history, 26-year-old Ryan Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station” would be no less powerful and resonant. But, with this film opening in the wake of that decision, there’s no denying the added level of immediate relevance. An extremely well-made and well-acted film that already is timeless in its story of a young man’s life cut short now becomes more timely than ever. This is essential viewing.
On New Year’s Day in 2009 at 2:15 a.m. 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a Fruitvale station platform in Oakland, Calif. Writer/director Coogler’s brisk 84-minute film traces back Oscar’s final day in roughly a 24-hour period. We follow him in the course of a typical day. Waking up with his girlfriend, Sophia (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter, driving them to day care and work respectively and then preparing for a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). Along the way, we get a glimpse into his troubled past. Prior to his untimely death, Oscar is not painted as a saint; he’s a multi-faceted man bridging the gap between his old ways and the new life he wants for his family.
Sophia has just caught Oscar cheating, he got fired from his job and a year ago was in jail for getting involved with drugs. A flashback takes us to Oscar’s mom visiting him in the penitentiary. He’s warm but rough-edged and temperamental, and their emotionally-charged exchange reveals a strained relationship. Flash forward to this day where Oscar is trying to get back on track. He’s surrounded by love, and the film’s naturalism in its shooting style — knowing exactly how long to linger and when to cut away — shows such human warmth, especially his undying love toward his daughter. On this day it looks like everything might work out, but we of course already know it doesn’t.
Enter the tension-fueled scene on the Fruitvale station platform between Oscar, his group of friends and a testy police officer (Kevin Durand) — a singular moment that seals Oscar’s fate. Coogler opens his film with real footage taken from a witness’ phone as the incident was circled with bystanders capturing footage. Juxtaposed to this, the scene becomes effectively jarring taking a moment of voyeurism and turning it into a pointed feeling of urgency and panic.
“Fruitvale Station” presents two major emerging talents. As a debut, Coogler’s film is a powerhouse while at the same time modest and personal. And Jordan plays Oscar with an assured steady hand, balancing sincerity and ferocity. His performance should go on to awards consideration later this year next to Octavia Spencer, the movie’s heart and soul. In the hospital waiting room, she calms the men’s cries of injustice telling them they need to put all their energy toward Oscar’s well-being. “Fruitvale” won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance, and no wonder. There’s not a dry eye in the audience when the credits roll.