In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009 a young, unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot and killed by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police in Oakland, California. Horrified onlookers from a commuter train recorded this incident on their cameras. The videos went viral on the internet. Fruitvale Station tells the story of this tragedy. It begins with the actual video of Oscar’s death, and then chronicles the last 24 hours of his life.
Oscar is portrayed as a bright, caring young man, who lived with his girlfriend, Sophina, and their daughter, Tatiana, in Oakland. Oscar was certainly no saint; we see in a flashback that he had spent time in jail. The film does not specify the reason for his incarceration. I presumed the reason to be drug-related, since the film shows Oscar using drugs. We also find out that Oscar has just lost his job at a grocery store for tardiness.
Despite his faults, Oscar was clearly a good man, who loved Sophina, Tatiana, his mother, Wanda, and his family. On New Year’s Eve, the Grant family gathered for Wanda’s birthday dinner. After the dinner, Oscar, Sophina, and friends took the BART to San Francisco to welcome in the New Year. On the way back from the festivities, Oscar was involved in a scuffle on the crowded train, leading to his apprehension and unnecessary death.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler does a fine job bringing this tragic story to the screen in a taut 90 minutes. (Other filmmakers should take note of the power of this short movie!) Everything about “Fruitvale Station” feels authentic. Watching Oscar play with Tatiana, choose a birthday card for Wanda, or call his grandmother to assist a customer at the grocery store with a fish recipe, I smiled at the humanity. At the same time, my smile was accompanied by a feeling of dread, knowing how the story would end.
I was impressed by the presence of prayer in the movie. Wanda led the family in grace before her birthday supper, and then again led the family in an emotional prayer “lifting up” Oscar during surgery at the hospital after his shooting. Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for 2011’s “The Help,” deserves another nomination for her powerful supporting performance.
The young actor Michael B. Jordan also deserves Oscar consideration for his remarkable performance as Oscar Grant. Jordan’s physical resemblance to Grant is uncanny. But there’s more to his performance than resemblance. Jordan has a great range: he runs the spectrum from playfulness to a young man suppressing his rage when necessary. Melonie Diaz also gives a touching performance as Sophina.
I admire the courage and conviction of Coogler and all involved with “Fruitvale Station” for bringing the tragic story of Oscar Grant to the screen. “Fruitvale Station” can certainly be appreciated on its own merits. However, with its parallels to the Trayvon Martin shooting still fresh in our minds this summer, this film can add to the ongoing discussion of race in America.
Tom Condon, OP