If you know the true story that inspired this film you might
not be eager to see it, but the tone of Fruitvale
Station isn’t downbeat or bleak. It’s an attempt to present a
three-dimensional portrait of the young man who was killed on New Year’s Eve
four years ago at an Oakland, California rapid-transit station. Because
writer-director Ryan Coogler and his actors do such a good job the film is
consistently compelling despite its predestined finale.
I became intrigued after learning that Fruitvale Station won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s
Sundance Film Festival, an unusual parlay that indicates critical approval as
well as popular support. This is all the more impressive considering that it’s
Coogler’s feature-film debut.
His first, and best, move was casting charismatic Michael B.
Jordan in the leading role of Oscar Grant. As the story is told in a series of
flashbacks, we learn that Oscar has recently served time; in prison and on the
streets, a volatile temper too often makes him his own worst enemy. His
girlfriend (well played by Melonie Diaz) is loyal and loving even when he
screws up, while their adorable young daughter (Ariana Neal) brings out the
best in him. His long-suffering mother (Octavia Spencer, in another
finely-tuned performance) holds out hope that he can get his act together and
become the upstanding family man he says he wants to be.
Fruitvale Station bends
over backwards to avoid painting its characters as heroes or villains. The
closeness of family and the feeling of community comes across as genuine in
every scene, making the outcome all the more upsetting. The entire cast is
excellent but Jordan pulls off the formidable feat of making Oscar an
empathetic character, despite his failings and flare-ups. Coogler’s
often-intimate staging of scenes has a near-documentary feeling that’s equally
The movie doesn’t set itself up as a morality tale; it’s
simply a slice of life, and it’s that unpretentious mindset that makes it so