Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is a powerful, and ultimately disarming, work of art about an unarmed Oakland man who was fatally shot in the back by a cop at the Fruitvale Street train station in 2009. It’s effective because it gives us just enough information at the outset to get us started, and then lulls us into a quiet rhythm as it chronicles the last twenty-four hours in Oscar Grant’s life before slamming us back into reality for a devastating third act. Fruitvale Station is the kind of film that will elicit many tears, but it earns them not through the tired and shameless manipulation of our emotions, but by the raw force of its storytelling.
Frankly, this is about as straight-forward a narrative as I can imagine. There is no technical plot to speak of. There are no twists, no machinations, or unnecessary complexities in the story. Coogler simply tells us what happened, and wastes no time in doing it: opening cell phone camera footage shows a group of men, most of them African-American, sitting on a BART train station platform in Oakland, surrounded by police. The men appear to be relatively calm and compliant. Suddenly, a struggle ensues. One of the men is forced on to his stomach, and the cops seem to have everything under control, until one of them pulls his gun hastily and shoots the man in the back. We find out at the end of the film that the cop who shot Oscar Grant claims he mistook his gun for his taser, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and spent time in prison. Welcome information, yes, but it comes as a simple punctuation mark, because the heart of the film — the source of its incredible power — arrives in a remarkable second act, as Coogler flashes back to the day before Oscar’s death and allows us a glimpse into his life.
Not that it was a life without its troubles. Oscar Grant was not a saint, and Coogler makes no effort to paint him that way. As his backstory unfolds, Oscar is in trouble for cheating on his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). As they sit in bed on the morning of the last day of his life, he tells her it’s over, and seems to mean it, but Sophina isn’t so sure. We’re introduced to their young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), whom Oscar treats with a deep and unconditional affection. Oscar says he’s going to work at the grocery store, while Sophina schleps off to her own working-class job. But Oscar doesn’t have a job: he was fired for being late, has lied about it to Sophina, and now must beg for his job back before she finds out. The store manager rejects his pleas, and Oscar reacts with a brief threat of violence. This is not a man known for keeping his cool. Aimless and desperate, he wanders the streets of Oakland. He cancels a planned drug deal, much to the shock of his potential client; selling drugs isn’t an option if he intends to right the course of his life. This leads to a brief flashback of Oscar in San Quentin prison, convicted for selling drugs. He has a visitor: his mother, Wanda, played with equal parts compassion and misery by Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer. Wanda has seen her son slide down hill and has had enough emotional pain. She won’t be coming back to visit him again. Oscar’s reaction to this news is heartbreaking, as Wanda leaves without looking back. To his credit, Oscar finally confesses his job loss to Sophina, who finds herself exasperated for yet again putting her trust in a man who continues to let her down. But he promises things will be different this time.
What a brilliant and poignant stretch of film this is. Coogler takes the time to allow the characters to develop organically within the story, instead of forcing their personalities on us through stilted dialogue or awkwardly manufactured scenes. He makes no moral judgements about Oscar Grant’s life, instead choosing to portray him as a deeply flawed man who is not always successful at trying to put his life back together. He allows Oscar to be who he is, until we’re drawn into the story and end up caring very much for this man and his family, whether we believe the way he’s choosing is right or wrong. Oscar’s story becomes the movie’s heartbeat, allowing it to live and breathe, and it’s only when he and Sophina make plans to go into the city for New Year’s Eve — via the Fruitvale Station — that we’re reminded that the story is meant to end in tragedy.
As to the third act, I’ll say only that it contains some of the most riveting filmmaking I’ve seen, as Coogler stretches the tension wire thin right up until the emotionally overwhelming end. It’s a difficult piece of filmmaking to pull off, and it would have failed miserably in the hands of incapable actors. But Coogler seems to have found the Holy Grail with Michael B. Jordan, as Oscar. I’ll admit to being unfamiliar with Jordan’s work going in to Fruitvale Station and was convinced Coogler had cast a non-actor in the role, reminiscent of Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild. So, imagine my surprise to discover later that Jordan has racked up an impressive resume of television and film supporting roles in his 26 years. As Oscar Grant, he never steps wrong. There isn’t one false note in his performance. Coogler has given him a nearly impossible range of emotions to play, as a man constantly conflicted with the state of his life — from anger and rage, to false charm, to an indestructible love for his daughter — and Jordan meets the challenge head-on. It’s a stunning performance, and should merit serious awards consideration.
Like I said, Fruitvale Station is a magnificent film, powerful and disarming in its storytelling. As the credits rolled, I sat in silence for a moment to gather myself. A knot had formed in my throat. I felt tears coming, and choked them back. As I finally stood, my hands trembling, I saw two women turn to the man in the row directly behind them and apologize for sobbing. “That’s okay,” he replied. “It’s that kind of movie.” Yes, it is. It’s also one of the year’s very best.
2013; starring Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer; directed by Ryan Coogler; 85 min; R