Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Ryan Coogler (debut)
Written by: Ryan Coogler (debut)
Whether you know the story behind the death of Oscar Grant or not, first-time director Ryan Coogler lays it all on the line for you at the very beginning of “Fruitvale Station,” a stunning and emotionally rich film that paints a uniquely authentic and compelling picture of a 22-year-old young man who lost his life on January 1, 2009. Oscar might just be a name to you now or a headline you remember reading in the newspaper a few years ago, but in “Fruitvale Station” Coogler turns him into so much more – a three-dimensional person whose fears, flaws, dreams, and character create a reason to agonize over the tragedy that occurs and hope it never happens to anyone again.
In “Fruitvale Station,” which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May (not to mention a well-deserved two-minute standing ovation), Coogler starts the film off with the real-life footage of the night Oscar is killed; footage that is recorded on cell phones by onlookers who witnessed the events unfold. After spending the evening with his girlfriend and friends in San Francisco to celebrate New Year’s Eve, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is detained by transit police in the subway station during their trip back home to Oakland when a fight breaks out. During the commotion, one of the officers attempts to subdue Oscar on the ground and then fires a single bullet into his back allegedly thinking he is firing his taser. Oscar is pronounced dead at the hospital later that morning.
While the death of Oscar is one of the most surreal things you’re likely to see online, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t allow it to become the sole purpose of the story. This is about Oscar’s life, in fact, and Coogler is steadfast in showing us who the lead character of this narrative is from as many vantage points as possible. As truthful as it is, the raw look at Oscar is sometimes not flattering, but Jordan gives his character the human qualities it takes for an audience to stand behind someone that has made his fair share of mistakes. As Sophina, Oscar’s supportive girlfriend and mother of his only child, actress Melonie Diaz (“Raising Victor Vargas”) gives a touching performance and sets up a strong familial network between Oscar and the most important women in his life, which include his sweet daughter (Ariana Neal) and his loving mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).
As Coogler’s first feature film of his career, “Fruitvale Station” is a cinematic anomaly. First-time directors shouldn’t be making movies as poignant as this. It’s a testament that the industry needs to find more room for intimate independent projects that examine social issues and deserve more attention. Who cares about the politics? Coogler’s focus is on the people.