Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station
With nothing planned this evening and Netflix at my disposal, I decided to sit down for a little movie night. Usually, I’d go for a film I have already seen and enjoyed with want for a quick decision. Tonight, I chose something different. Having heard of Fruitvale Station through the grapevine I chose to give it a go, knowing little about the film apart from it being based on a true-story that involved police brutality. At only one hour and twenty-five minutes long, I can safely announce that this film will never be forgotten. Not by me, nor by anyone who has taken the time to sit and experience Oscar Grant 111’s last hours.
On New Years Eve 2008 Oscar Grant spent the day like he perhaps usually would; he dropped his daughter Tatiana to school, he spent the evening with his mother, girlfriend and family, and he celebrated the New Year with friends in San Fransisco, watching as the fireworks took flight. Returning home, Grant was involved in an altercation on the train. The train stops, police arrive, and Grant – and his friends – are all picked out and sat down. From that moment, whatever happened before becomes irrelevant. The police act on a basis that can only be described as racial prejudice, and Grant is shot in the back. On January 1st 2009, Oscar Grant lost his life. His daughter, Tatiana lost her daddy. His girlfriend Sophina Mesa, lost the father of her child. His mother, Wanda Johnson, lost her son. The police officer that committed homicide? Well, he was sentenced to two years in prison and received eleven months. Fruitvale Station is a kettle boiling steadily, quietly waiting to openly, boldly, bravely, confront the misjustice of the corrupt police officers, and the racial stigma in contemporary America. Many know it still exists, only few are brave enough to address it – Ryan Coogler does it here with empathy and authority.
Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant, and it’s impossible for any critic or audience member to comment on whether the actor has done him justice. That is for Grant’s family to decide, but I get the feeling that had they disagreed with the performance, Fruitvale Station wouldn’t of met its audience. Coogler’s film isn’t an exploitation piece, it a pivotal – and poignant – look at an unfathomable crime. A crime that was acted out by someone citizens of America, no matter what race, or social background, should be able to depend on – and more importantly, trust. The crime itself is just a small scene within the film, the feature is dominated by moments of Grant with his family, the love that they shared together. Coupled with this, are asides of a pensive man, looking back on his time in prison as he decides to once and for all turn away from his life of crime. Coogler doesn’t portray Grant as a perfect 22 year old guy – that would of been so easy. Instead, Grant is seen to be there for his family, desperately trying to attain financial stability. He has a temper, he’s done time, but he’s human. Grant isn’t made out to be a heroic figure, but someone trying to be there for those around him. A positive and upbeat character, a man who shouldn’t of had his life stolen from him so early.
Director Coogler is just 29 years old himself, and was a graduate student when Grant was shot and killed. Coogler knew instantly that he needed to tell the story of what happened at Fruitvale to the rest of the world, and that he successfully did. Going on to win two awards at Sundance, Coogler’s first directorial feature is as powerful and moving as anything from a helmer who’s been in the business for years. Ludwig Goransson composed the films score, which the musician himself describes as “Haunting.” – that, it is. Quiet and instrumental, the score plays an important role in reminding the audience of what is to come, which doesn’t lend to a feeling of impending doom, rather a sense of urgency that Grant see’s his family. Acts of prayer, intimate yet never intrusive, witty scenes of Jordan as Grant brushing his teeth with his daughter (portrayed here by young talent Ariana Neale) for the last time – these are so straightforward, yet they take on a new importance here. Octavia Spencer as Wanda is a treasure, she possesses the faith and hope of a mother. She is as natural as any parent, who all channel so much love to those around them. Spencer’s final moments in the film are so special, full of depth and respect – no overacting in sight here.
There is so much powerful emotion in Fruitvale Station. This emotion might come from the total obscenity of what took place on January 1st. It might also come from the careful and thoughtful manner in which Coogler and team went about adapting such an event for a mass audience. Beyond this, it could be based on the tragedy of the realization that America is still a divided nation. Whatever it is, it’s an accomplishment from the cast and crew who so tentatively put together this crucial feature.