Anthony's Film Review
Fruitvale Station (2013)
An engaging drama about life, featuring a well-cast star and handled skillfully by a talented new director...
Fruitvale Station is about the last day of a man's life. Not the life of a fictional character, but of a real person. Not the life of an old person who has lived long, but of a young person who has died young. The person I'm talking about is Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man whose life was cut short with a gunshot to the back.
On New Year's Day in 2009, he had gotten into an altercation on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train and, at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California, was pinned down onto the train platform by BART police. In the chaos that ensued, one BART cop, Johannes Mehserle, pulled out a gun and shot Oscar in the back, a move that Mehserle later claimed was accidental because he had mistaken his gun for his taser. The tragedy sparked small riots in downtown Oakland, partly because Mehserle hadn't been arrested yet and partly because Mehserle was Caucasian while Oscar was African-American.
In fact, I was in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, not too far from where the shooting happened. I remember watching the Oakland riots as they were occurring live on KRON Channel 4, a television station in San Francisco. The situation was nowhere near the massive destruction of the 1992 Los Angeles riots (following an all-white jury's acquittal of LAPD officers brutally beating Rodney King, a black motorist), but it was still a surreal experience. The image on television that shook me the most was when a KRON 4 reporter was about to provide information from her vantage point near the rioting. This was when one rioter got into the camera shot and close to the reporter, prompting her to suddenly cut off her report for safety reasons.
Basically, I started watching the movie Fruitvale Station already with much knowledge of Oscar's death. And it came flooding back when the film's first scene appeared, showing footage of Oscar's final moments at the Fruitvale BART station until the fatal gunshot. Many cell phone video clips of the incident can be found on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. This particular video clip in the movie is shaky and somewhat grainy like all others, but it's still striking because it seems to provide the best view of the victim and the cop who shoots him. Director Ryan Coogler must've combed the Web for the best quality Oscar Grant footage and found nothing better than this one.
Afterwards, the fictionalized part of the movie begins. The story takes place from a few minutes after midnight on December 31, 2008, to the early morning hours of January 1, 2009. Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) spends most of this period of time doing various things. There are moments with him and his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (played by Ariana Neal). Oscar also chats with a lovely lady at a supermarket, meets with an Asian guy seeking to buy marijuana from him, speaks with his mother (played by Olivia Spencer, who previously starred in 2011's The Help as one of the black maids), and gets together with his friends for New Year's celebrations in San Francisco. Overall, the story of Oscar is simply the story of an ordinary person on an ordinary day. But that's OK. Slice-of-life stories can be interesting when presented nicely, which is definitely the case here.
Aside from the joy of watching life as it happens, there is the fascinating central character. Oscar Grant is indeed a complex three-dimensional character. He possesses both positive and negative traits such that we might dislike him a bit at times, but we can't totally despise him either. On the one hand, Oscar may lose his temper with people who want to cause trouble or otherwise seems to be an obstacle getting in the way of something he wants. As Sophina tells him at one point, Oscar seems to treat life as a joke. On the other hand, Oscar is a charming and friendly guy whom one can laugh with. He also bonds closely with his daughter Tatiana whenever the two are together. In fact, this is the one true redeeming characteristic Oscar has: being a loving father, regardless of how he is with everyone else.
This is the perfect time for me to talk about Michael B. Jordan playing Oscar Grant. This actor delivers a nice performance, and it's even more impressive that this is Jordan's first major role. He portrays his character with natural ease, as if he himself is Oscar. I have no doubt that this new and up-and-coming actor will have an exciting career ahead of him. The same is true for Melonie Diaz, Ariana Neal, and Olivia Spencer (though she pretty much is a big star already, considering her previous work in one major motion picture).
As for director Ryan Coogler, I'm sure that he, too, will make it big. With Fruitvale Station, he gives us a simple yet captivating film about a human being going through the motions of life before it all suddenly comes to an unexpected and tragic end. Speaking of which, Coogler handles the climactic scene very well, making us feel scared after making us feel good to really show how a tragedy yanks our emotions. With all of this, Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station in 2013 undoubtedly ranks up there with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing from 1989 and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood from 1991. All three films are directed by young African-American directors and portray everyday life among American minorities.
It's easy to call Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood, and Fruitvale Station as being about race because they center on non-white people. If you think about it, those three movies, if you have seen them, are about people living very much like most other people. It seems that the only time race comes to mind is after the tragic events in each film, probably because we all need an explanation for such occurrences and the racial background of the individuals involved is the first thing we see. In fact, consider the real-life case of Trayvon Martin, a teenager in Sanford, Florida, who was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, supposedly in self-defense. The possibility of targeting someone to kill and then claiming self-defense is already enraging enough. The additional possibility of racial profiling (as Martin was black, Zimmerman was half-white half-Hispanic) only makes the situation more troubling. Then there's the not-guilty verdict issued to Zimmerman by a jury of five white women and one minority woman, just as the film Fruitvale Station was being widely released into theaters. The timing of the Zimmerman verdict makes the movie much more important than it already is.
But even if you put aside all politics and knowledge of real-life events, Fruitvale Station is still something to remember. It will make you smile and lift your heart before making you cry and breaking your heart. The cast is just wonderful in playing characters who are as ordinary as the rest of us. Most importantly, the film is about the preciousness of life. No matter who we are, we all seek the same thing: happiness and meaning in our lives. And no matter who we are, the loss of a life, whether accidental or not, whether during a train ride home or anywhere else, is always an unforgettable shock. Overall, Fruitvale Station manages to be powerful even with a running time of almost 90 minutes. This is a film that, for whatever reason, many people will remember.
For more information about Fruitvale Station, visit the Internet Movie Database.