Early this year, I noticed fervent statements on Twitter regarding the next “big” film out of Sundance: Fruitvale. Later re-titled Fruitvale Station, the film had been touted as the year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild by people like actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. More than six months later, the film hasn’t lost any momentum, despite the fact that it’s no Beasts of the Southern Wild. Forgiving comparisons to a film that stands as one of the more transcendental works by an American indie filmmaker, Fruitvale still packs a potent punch, but its power comes from a more emotional place rather than spiritual.
Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station follows a young black father on his last day alive before a confrontation with police ends in his shooting death. As I have a job in the news industry, I remember this story as it unfolded. Oscar Grant was among a group of friends detained at a BART station in Oakland, California, early New Year’s Day 2010, following a fight on a transit train. During his detention by police, Grant lost his life after a transit officer shot him. Witnesses captured the moment on cell phone video. The officer later argued that he had confused his gun for his Taser when he shot the 22-year-old in the back while he resisted arrest.
Taking place over the course of only a day, the filmic account of this incident is all about setting up the tragedy of that night. It opens with the voices of a young couple sharing fanciful New Year’s resolutions against a black screen. The banter between the man and woman is full of humor and affection. Carbs are mentioned and so is Oprah. Then, the first images we see is grainy cell phone video footage of four young black men sitting against a wall while three BART Police officers loom over them. This is actual footage recorded by a witness from a train car held at Fruitvale Station where police had responded to the fight. What happens next is chilling. It’s real-life foreshadowing into director Ryan Coogler’s re-creation of that day’s events with Michael B. Jordan taking on the lead role.
The fractured, associative narrative of the film’s introduction offers a minimalist sensation of the warmth and horror the director aims to set up for the duration of the rest of the film. It’s all about riling up emotions and sympathy for Oscar and his family. Though the majority of the drama shows Oscar having to deal with a troubled past that includes a bad temper, infidelity to his child’s mother and dealing marijuana, the film mostly offers up a man who is simpatico with strangers, family and even stray dogs.
Forgiving a few moments of over-contemplative slow-motion and two or three scenes too many establishing that Oscar has a heart, Coogler has some brilliant moments that highlight intimacy on a warm, cozy level that feels hard to deny. It happens on an almost subconscious level that transcends overt efforts to stir up sympathy. It involves the serendipitous culmination of the film’s various scenes and some choice instances of camera placement, including the amount of floor space shared by children during a sleepover and a glance from below an escalator as Oscar and his friends bunch together on a few steps and head out into the dark of New Year’s morning.
The film’s strength comes from these subtle, warm moments more than anywhere else. These scenes and instances— and there are others— where dialogue does not matter, offer a bridge to the humanity, life and hope that connects the viewer to these people not matter the racial makeup of either the audience or the on-screen characters. A low-key, yet sincere approach by the actors helps fuel these moments, a notable accomplishment of restraint for a first-time feature director. It does not hurt that the film also features another notable appearance by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda.
But it’s Jordan who most makes this film. I entered with reserved expectations having first come to know the actor during his over-sincere performance as Alex on one of the great network television shows more people should be watching: “Parenthood.” But, here, Jordan embraces a much more complex role and dives into the nuances of a persona that must adapt to varied social environments and other characters, be they a drug dealer, his girlfriend, his mother or his friends. The director also employs an inventive trick that reveals the complexity of this character by showing Oscar doing one thing with one person while texting something else depicted in a superimposed image representing exchanges with another person. Oscar is intriguingly complex, a man who would rather withhold information, even if it means trouble, which again adds to the intricacies of his interactions with others. It’s one thing to reveal a character through verbose dialogue, but it’s another to reveal him by what he does not say.
Some may complain that Fruitvale Station takes a one-sided approach to the incident, as the film leaves little room for humanizing the police officers (a menacing performance by Kevin Durand as a rather boisterous cop who may have played a hand in Oscar’s death could only serve to enhance any of those protestations). But one could also forgive it for focusing on the disenfranchised who often receive a raw deal in the judicial system (see the most recent protests against Stand Your Ground laws in many states). At the end of the movie, a few lines of text sum up the culmination of the events of that night, including the charges and sentence for the officer who pulled the trigger. It elicited a gasp from the audience during the preview screening this writer attended and someone in the audience shouted “Trayvon Martin,” in reference to the current debate on Stand Your Ground. The film, helmed by a black director, cannot be faulted for this approach, as it taps into a current, honest sense of disenfranchisement.
As I noted, I do remember this news story as it unfolded all the way to its trial. I cannot say the film changed my sense of sympathy for the victim and his family. To share some focus on the officer would only lend sympathy to a broken justice system that only continues to propagate divisions among classes and race. Coogler’s decision to only follow Oscar, however, illuminates the humanity at the core of the story. If it can prove as a reminder of the space we share as human beings, then Fruitvale Station should be seen and celebrated for what it is, and indeed, come awards season, an Oscar may serve this film well, as it stands as one of the most important films of 2013.
Fruitvale Station is Rated R and runs 90 min. It opens in wide release today. The Weinstein Company hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
Update: Fruitvale Station finally hits theaters in the UK and Ireland on June 6, 2014.
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)