Film Review: Fruitvale Station
A retelling of the Oscar Grant story offers perspective on recent events
Published: July 24, 2013
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Opens at the Charles July 26
Fruitvale Station will make you sick to your stomach. It will prompt you to shed at least a few tears, if not to sob. And it might make you angry. The depiction of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s last day alive—New Year’s Eve 2008—and his unwarranted death, face-down on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 1, 2009, Fruitvale Station bears marked parallels to the incendiary story of Trayvon Martin. Protests and riots followed the incident back in 2009, and returned in 2010, when the Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who killed Oscar Grant was found not guilty of second-degree murder and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The depth of tragedy in each instance is staggering.
The altercation that led to Grant’s death is well-documented in shaky cellphone-camera footage on YouTube, recorded by passengers still aboard the stopped train. While being detained by BART police after reports of a fight on the train, Grant was lined up along the wall of the station with friends; after an officer appears to strike him, Grant, on his knees, was forced to the floor, and two officers began to restrain him, one putting his knee on Grant’s back and neck; the other officer stood up, reached into his holster, and fired his gun at Grant’s back. The officer displayed shock and later (possibly at the time—audio on YouTube videos is garbled) stated he was reaching for his taser.
This footage, shown in the first minutes of Fruitvale Station, is heart-wrenching enough. The movie that follows paints an even more tragic picture, one that refrains from idealizing Oscar Grant. Ryan Coogler, who grew up in Oakland and is around the same age as Grant, wrote and directed the film, his first feature-length endeavor.
When Coogler’s film begins, at midnight on Dec. 31, 2008, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, who was Wallace on The Wire and Vince on Friday Night Lights) sends a text message to his mother (Octavia Spencer) saying happy birthday. This comes, however, after bickering with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who fumes at him, having recently caught him cheating on her. They’re in bed, talking about New Year’s resolutions, hers to cut carbs, his to “stop selling trees.” When their 4-year-old daughter knocks on the door, Oscar stashes a sizable bag of weed in the closet before opening the door and scooping her up into bed. The family falls asleep together. The balanced domestic vignette sets the tone for Coogler’s approach to Oscar’s character.
We witness Oscar’s temper flare up at his old boss, who won’t give him back his job at a high-end grocery store; we watch Oscar skirt around the topic of his job with his mother and Sophina. But he also possesses finesse and consideration: He convinces a storekeeper closing up shop to let Sophina use the bathroom at the end of the night. He sneaks his daughter fruit snacks while dropping her off at school. Because we know the irreconcilable conclusion to his day, the mundane goings-on of Oscar’s New Year’s Eve—buying seafood for his grandmother’s gumbo, having a spat with Sophina, taking a call from his mom—become imbued with poignancy.
Coogler’s elegant, lean execution, his balanced portrait of a young man, and his restraint in politicizing the film only serve to intensify the experience of Fruitvale Station. Hardly a scene in the film overreaches or fails to carry weight (though there is one with a stray dog that leans toward the former). Oscar buzz swirls around him already, as it does Jordan.
Fruitvale’s cast and crew shot the film’s climactic closing scenes at the actual Fruitvale subway station, and Coogler began each day there with a moment of silence. The film exudes his reverence for what transpired against that wall—the murder of an innocent—in a most delicate way. Emotions aren’t browbeaten from the viewer; they’re naturally elicited. At the very small screening I attended, at least three people were crying audibly. One leaves the theater feeling shaken, ready to retire home, where you can hold your loved ones close and try to feel safe.
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