EVERY STEP BRINGS YOU CLOSER TO THE EDGE.
Fruitvale Station has become this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Much like that film, it came out of the Sundance festival riding a wave of critical appraisal, going on to gain public support as well as scooping up numerous awards over the year. In the end, Beasts of the Southern Wild earned several Oscar nominations. I’m confident that Ryan Coogler’s first film will do the same next year. Both movies are widely seen as independent productions, but in Coogler’s case it is particularly obvious that some indies are quickly picked out of the obscure if only the right names are attached.
In 2009, Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) is 22 years old and trying to piece his life back together after serving two stints in prison for selling drugs and illegally carrying a firearm. The Hayward, California native is still on parole, but in a relationship with Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his four-year-old daughter. His mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) is also present, so there’s stability in Oscar’s life even though he’s out of a job and the drug business is still a tempting option. The film begins with real-life footage from New Year’s Eve that year when Oscar and Sophina took the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train from San Francisco and ended up in a fight that eventually led to Oscar and a few friends being restrained by BART police officers. When one of them decided to tase Oscar, he drew his gun instead and shot him in the back. Oscar died later on New Year’s Day in an Oakland hospital. The police officer served a short prison sentence and the Grant family was financially compensated by BART.
Lots of New Year’s celebrators filmed the encounter between Oscar and the cops with their cell phones, which is where the initial footage comes from. The rest of the film is a reenactment of Oscar’s last day in life, meticulously researched by Coogler who wanted to take a person’s random death out of the headlines and tell the full story behind. He succeeds remarkably well, especially for a person making his first movie. Along with Jordan, he paints a rich portrait of Oscar as a good father, boyfriend and son who ends up in prison and later in the hands of the clumsy BART cops because of his temper, bad luck and the structure of our society that usually regards a young, working-class black man with suspicion. There are times when Coogler’s sympathetic portrait goes a little too far, when we in the audience are likely to feel that we’re being a little too manipulated, including a much talked-about scene involving a dog that gets hit by a car. But in the end, Coogler’s effort seems sincere; by the time we get to those horrible events at Fruitvale Station, we are at the edge of our seats, hoping that somehow Oscar’s fate will be different this time. What plays out is very upsetting and moving; not only is Jordan’s performance very strong, but Spencer is also tremendously effective, and Coogler hits all the right notes in so many scenes throughout the film.
A lot of people probably view this film as an underdog compared to many other big movies that are likely to get Oscar nods next year. But considering the fact that Fruitvale Station has an Oscar-winning actress in its cast, was supported by heavy-hitters like Forest Whitaker and “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett (thanks to Spencer), and marketed by the shock-and-awe Harvey Weinstein PR machine, I wouldn’t call this your average indie underdog. It is nonetheless an impressive piece of work by a young director.
Fruitvale Station 2013-U.S. 85 min. Color. Produced by Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Music: Ludwig Göransson. Cast: Michael B. Jordan (Oscar Grant III), Octavia Spencer (Wanda Johnson), Melonie Diaz (Sophina), Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray.
Trivia: BART gave Coogler permission to film the climactic scenes on the same platform where the New Year’s events took place in 2009.
Last word: “It hit me as soon as I knew I wanted to do the movie, following him on the day. A lot of my favorite films have that structure, Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’, ‘The 25th Hour’, ‘Inside Man’, and even more so, ‘La Haine’ also deals with police brutality. ‘Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days’ follows characters on a day. I thought there was lot of inherent irony in the fact it happened on New Year’s Eve, a day when people are thinking about the future, they’re the optimistic, best version of themselves, looking forward to a clean slate. I always knew I wanted to tell it in that format, spend time, let things breathe, let the audience spend time with the character. Ideally the people who watch this film would never know that person, or spend five minutes with him. Now they spend 90 minutes with him.” (Coogler, Thompson on Hollywood)