'Fruitvale Station' Movie Review: A Unique Take On Oscar Grant
Fruitvale Station, the film that grabbed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival and Sundance, is one of the most powerful movies you’ll see this year. Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, the young, African American man who was shot by a white BART (subway) Police officer on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, CA. The film co-stars Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his young daughter, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as his mother.
The low-budget movie uses a lot of hand-held camera shots, allowing the audience to be as close to Oscar as possible. It’s a risky film because its success relies on the hope that people will empathize fully with Oscar, rather than focus on how he died, and that audiences will not try to rationalize or justify the death of an imperfect man.
The film begins at midnight on New Year's Eve, and ends shortly after midnight the next day. In those twenty-four hours, we learn a lot about Oscar Grant. He smokes pot and used to deal. He’s committed to his girlfriend, but has cheated on her in the past. He’s also been to prison. To some, Oscar might look like a waste of space, unemployed and irresponsible – he just got fired from his grocery store job for never coming in on time –and that’s the point. Oscar may be some of those things, but they don’t define him, and they certainly don’t make his life worth any less.
What’s heartbreaking about Fruitvale Station is that it portrays a day in Oscar Grant’s life without allowing the reality of his death to weigh down the entire film. Though the movie begins with original cell-phone footage of the incident, once we enter the world of the film, there isn’t the sense that this is Oscar's last day – it isn't a movie about goodbyes, it's about the absence of goodbyes.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler could have easily created a film that openly vilifies the police officers involved (and condemns a society that perpetuates racial stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes). However, by focusing solely on Oscar Grant’s life, particularly his relationship with his family, Coogler has created a film that honored a life, instead of a death. The director focuses the energy of the film on Oscar, making the movie more of a character study than a political statement. The political messages of the film are, consequently, all the more powerful because the audience cannot help but think about them on their own. There is no emotion being forced upon the audience – something especially apparent in the lack of music during climactic moments. It is all subtle and beautifully tragic in its simplicity.
The film’s success is, without a doubt, mostly due to a mesmerizing performance by Jordan, who is known for his standout roles on TV’s Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Jordan is amazing as Oscar, truly a force to be reckoned with. He plays Oscar with a humility and a freedom few actors allow themselves, completely giving himself over to the role – even when the camera is not on him, he is spectacular. During a particularly heartbreaking scene between Oscar and his mother, Jordan owns the scene even though the camera is doing a close-up of Oscar’s mother. The only actor who comes close to stealing the spotlight is Ariana Neal, who plays Oscar’s young daughter, Tatiana (or ‘T’ for short). Neal is a natural, and her chemistry with Jordan is charming. She plays Tatiana with ease and appears completely uninhibited, something rare in child actors.
Fruitvale Station is a movie that deserves to be seen on a big screen, and I do not say this lightly. In the end, the film strives to create a new community of people who see the injustice in Oscar Grant’s murder – and it does just that. When the film settles into the inevitable BART station scuffle and murder towards the end, the entire audience was captivated. I have never been in such a silent movie theater. The entire audience was paralyzed with horror. Everybody could be heard taking shaky breaths and sniffling – we were all crying together.
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