REVIEW: Fruitvale Station [2013]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 85 minutes | Release Date: July 12th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Ryan Coogler
Writer(s): Ryan Coogler

“Undefeated! 100-0.”

If even half of what first time writer/director Ryan Coogler depicts happened on Oscar Grant III’s (Michael B. Jordan) last day is true, you better not be leaving the theatre without red eyes and dried tears. We love to depict fate and destiny as the things which bring us towards true love and happiness, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we’re destined for tragedy no matter what we do; sometimes a series of coincidences and events simply occur with no rhyme or reason besides putting us into the situation that will ultimately be our demise. We can look at the sad actions taken by too many people to control as God’s will or we can see them as random, unavoidable occurrences. Whichever we choose, however, the endgame’s joy or heartbreak is unalterable.

To know Grant’s story as a headline is to know very little about the real twenty-two year old. He wasn’t just some statistic in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an ex-con with a loving and forgiving girlfriend, a sweet and intelligent daughter, and a multigenerational family at his back. Yes he was troubled and in the Oakland drug game. Yes he was recently unemployed for failing to come to work on time. But unlike any other moment in his life, New Year’s Eve 2008 was to be a turning point. One year to the day removed from watching his mother leave him in prison without turning back for a goodbye hug, he now stared a second chance in the face and for once wasn’t willing to squander it away.

This is the type of man Oscar was finally ready to be—a loving father and potential husband willing to walk away from his past. This is the type of man those closest to him caught a glimpse of that fateful day—a warm-hearted gentleman quick to help those in need and a stand-up guy with an easy smile to make everyone around him better. This is whom Coogler wanted to meet posthumously and show the world. While a martyr to some now, Grant was a human being like us who was caught on the other end of a misunderstanding escalated out of control due to race, anxiety, and/or whatever else pumped through the veins of victims and police officers alike. His life meant something and Coogler has ensured this important fact is known.

Named after the locale now indelibly connected to this young man, Fruitvale Station pulls no punches in its portrayal of those involved for better or worse. No one in this film is perfect as even the clean cut white businessman roaming San Francisco with his pregnant wife that runs into Grant admits he proposed with a stolen ring. We’ve all made transgressions and have hopefully paid the consequences. Coogler could have used his film to declare his subject a saint while vilifying those with a hand in his fate devils beyond redemption and yet doesn’t. While the subject matter can’t help but lean that direction due to its perspective anyway, watching Kevin Durand‘s Officer Caruso after the fact is to witness a heart-wrenchingly authentic act of humanity in the face of a tragic mistake.

The film is a harrowing experience that begins with the raw footage of Grant and his friends taken by a camera phone and ends with a powerhouse of emotion on behalf of Jordan, Octavia Spencer (as his mother Wanda), and Melonie Diaz (as girlfriend Sophina). We see the real police brutality right up to the gunshot before transporting back twenty-four hours to Grant helping his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) into bed. We watch his internal struggle with a volatile temper and the knowledge of how it could rip his whole world apart. There are missteps along the way that are tempered with hopeful morsels of maturity leading him to the warmth of family and friends in celebration of his mother’s birthday—a get-together everyone knew was hardly a guarantee the year before.

With that joy comes genuine happiness between Oscar and Sophina, adorable parenting to Tatiana, and a welcome comradery with friends and strangers on the BART train to Frisco for midnight fireworks. There’s even an unforgettable moment of pure humanity with passengers of all ages and color joined together in an impromptu dance party with emotional worth that transcends anything standing in the street to look up at the sky could have brought. It’s a scene of idyllic understanding that we all share our lives and homes with those around us—we’re all fully aware of the hardships everyone endures and equally intent on escaping them for just one solitary second. It’s a slice of life showing what could and should be directly preceding the moment that shatters us back to reality.

A stellar supporting cast in Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Durand, and even Chad Michael Murray in unfathomable grief makes what occurs utterly believable despite its inherent contrivance. But its Diaz, Spencer, and Jordan who give the film its heart. The women are devastating in their frustrations and forgiveness, knowing that loving Oscar is far from the easiest thing but well worth the effort. And Jordan: he shows what that lovably tragic boy from “The Wire” has grown into. He’s always used his talent well on TV (“Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood”) and film (Chronicle), but never before has he embodied a role so completely like with Grant’s mix of hatred and love. It’s a performance worthy of high accolades inside a film that earns the myriad awards bestowed upon it. Hopefully more are coming to both.

Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Photo: Ron Koeberer. Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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