For those who may not know, “Fruitvale Station” is a docudrama based on the shooting death of 22-year old Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The shooting took place on January 1, 2009 and was caught on numerous cell phone videos from witnesses. The incident would spark protests, unfortunate rioting, and dialogues about a number of feelings and concerns. Some have said this is was a racially motivated crime. I’m not sure there is definitive proof of that. Others have said the shooting resulted from Grant resisting arrest. I don’t think there is any way this tragedy can be fully placed on Oscar Grant’s shoulders. One thing is for certain, a young African-American man, a father, lost his life and it should have never happened.
“Fruitvale Station” marks the filmmaking debut from Ryan Coogler. He was drawn to the story and spent time with Grant’s family in order to develop a deeper more human profile. Coogler stated “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.” It’s a smart approach that gives the film a real emotional kick. But some have criticized the overly sympathetic portrayal of Oscar saying that is glosses over some of his real personal and legal problems.
When you go in the docudrama direction, especially when tackling such a potent incident, you open yourself up that kind of criticism. I did feel Coogler was softening the edges a bit in order to draw more empathy from the audience. That said, it never took away the hurt I felt for the family, the discomfort of watching the police aggression, or the sadness brought on by Oscar’s death. The film does a good job of drawing those emotions from us. Is the film emotionally exploitative at times? I think so. A few scenes are a bit heavy-handed and a more seasoned filmmaker would have probably avoided them. Still the overall impact of the film is strong despite these issues.
This movie is a remarkable feature film debut for Coogler but he’s not the only revelation found in “Fruitvale Station”. 26-year old Michael B. Jordan is excellent. Known mainly for his work in television and in last year’s “Chronicle”, Jordan has caught a lot of attention playing Oscar Grant. There is a raw authenticity to what he is doing on screen that works perfectly with the role. He’s joined on screen by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer who also helped produce the film. She plays Oscar’s mother and once again she is very good. Melonie Diaz does great work as well playing Oscar’s wife Sophina.
Minus a few small stumbles, which can be expected from a first time filmmaker, “Fruitvale Station” is still an emotionally powerful film that puts a spotlight on an unfortunate tragedy. Coogler makes a strong directorial debut but Michael B. Jordan also makes a statement in what should be a breakthrough performance. Even though I felt slightly manipulated as the story was moving along, the tense and gutwrenching ending was no less devastating. In the end this movie works, and it’s impossible not to be effected by it.