Movies are rarely topical, especially now in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Movies are much better at addressing history, fantasy, or the generalities of the human condition than current events.
“Fruitvale Station” is a movie about race, violence, and fear of young black men that are coming out just as our nation is engaged in a passionate conversation about race, violence, and fear of young black men.
But even though this film echoes the story of Trayvon Martin, it is an effective, powerful, and superbly made movie that would be worth noting even if this topic wasn’t the social focus of the day.
“Fruitvale Station” is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Oakland resident, who in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 was shot, while handcuffed, by police during an altercation at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station.
The incident was recorded by several onlookers and received national attention after sparking mass protests in the Bay Area.
The movie was written and directed by first-time writer and director Ryan Coogler, who was a film student when Grant was shot.
Coogler set out to make a movie about Grant’s last day and caught the attention of Forrest Whitaker’s production company, which financed the film and got it into the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.
Coogler’s film is essentially a slice of life as we follow Grant (brilliantly played by Michael B. Jordan), a twice-convicted felon who is trying to get his life in order. He spends his day driving his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), to work; picking up their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), from daycare; and attending the birthday party of his mother, Wanda (the great Octavia Spencer).
The strength of the movie is its neutral tone as it never goes out of its way to paint Grant as either a sinner or a saint. In a lot of ways, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but mostly the movie shows us that he was shot because of a fear that was unfounded and misplaced.
You can make a lot of arguments to assign blame and look for the root causes of the incident, but the biggest takeaway is that Grant didn’t deserve to die.
Coogler just presents the evidence and lets us insert our own disgust and sense of injustice. While this movie grabs a lot of attention thanks to its subject matter, it is important to note that Coogler’s talents as a filmmaker are undeniable.
He adds inspired little flourishes; like putting Grant’s text messages up on the screen or letting the camera hauntingly linger as a subway train speeds by. Even Grant’s encounter with a stray dog that is struck by a speeding car is handled with deft and grace where most novice filmmakers would have been tempted to slam the brakes on the whole movie and throw a flashing neon sign that screamed “METAPHOR” over the scene.
There is a lot of early Oscar buzz surrounding this film, which is usually easy to dismiss in July, but don’t be surprised when the dust settles to see nominations come down for Coogler, Jordan, and Spencer.
It’s usually easy to let an independent movie like this slip through the cracks, but it’s not every day that a film comes along showcasing this much talent and relevance as to demand your attention.
“Fruitvale Station” is a movie people are going to be talking about and it’s a conversation you don’t want to be left out of.
“Fruitvale Station” is rated R for some violence, language throughout, and some drug use.