Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Release Company: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R
Coming shortly after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, the the timing of the theatrical release of Fruitvale Station was auspicious. Both involve racial profiling with a young African-American losing his life tragically from a handgun. Both situations demonstrate that racism remains alive in the U.S. whether it comes from central Florida or from the more progressive Bay Area. The aftermath of the two cases diverge radically, however, primarily because the latter took place on a public platform with hundreds of witnesses and a plethora of video evidence recorded on various cell phones.
Indeed, the film begins at that Fruitvale BART station platform with one of those cell phone video clips that ends with a single gun shot.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely refrains from taking a pointed political point of view or deconstructing the events Rashomon style. He does something far more radical. He humanizes the subject!
After the brief opening clip, he begins his film on the morning of December 31, 2008 as 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) awakens to his last day on Earth.
Oscar isn't perfect. He's served prison time for dealing marijuana and he's occasionally cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). But he's resolved to do better--to regain a steady job, to be a better partner to Sophina, to be a better father to their 4 year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and to make his mother (Octavia Spencer) proud of him. The last is especially on his mind today since today marks her birthday, and much of Oscar's day involves connecting with relatives and getting things ready for her celebratory birthday dinner.
Jordan carries the film magnificently. Remaining in frame throughout, Jordan shows tremendous emotional range. And these are not over the top demonstrations, his face communicates subtle nuances most of the time. He only explodes with episodic rage when provoked, and much of this is necessary for street cred and survival. Jordan truly becomes a believable Oscar Grant, but most importantly becomes fully sympathetic and human. Jordan accomplishes this in the most understated, authentic and natural manner. His genuine charm and open hearted good nature draw us into his character so deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to hold back tears when the inevitable climax arrives.
Credit Coogler's script for allowing Jordan's humanity to win us over. Refraining from narration, many of his internal thoughts are illuminated via texting messages. Not only do these convey how much he desires connection with the people he loves, but these establish us solidly with the period and also remind the crucial role that cell phones will play in the aftermath of the platform tragedy. The script also puts Oscar in situations to interact with strangers outside his immediate family and community, to ponder his role when meeting a former pot customer, to playfully interact with his daughter after preschool, and respond to an injured dog. (Kids and dogs also play to the heart)
In the wake of the controversial and unsatisfying trial in Sanford, Florida, Fruitvale Station arrives at a most timely moment. It reminds us that the real tragedy lies not with politics or legal injustices ... but with a very human loss. One that viewers experience intimately since the protagonist connects with his heart.