Everybody knows somebody. Everybody has a life, loved-ones, a mother. Everyone has relationships, some they cherish and some they do not. Everyone has a trek in their lives even if it seems, to an outsider, to be a path going nowhere. Oscar Grant III, the central focus of Ryan Cooglar's extraordinary new film "Fruitvale Station", is no different. He is a good kid, not brilliant, not always a man of wise decisions, but he is filled with compassion and a good heart. He is specific, a human being with hopes and dreams and fears and a somewhat haunted past.
Grant is a young 22 year-old black man with a less-than-spotless past and a decision making capacity that leaves a lot to be desired. This is not the story of a gang-banger or a drug dealer. It is simply the amazing story of one specific life that has been shaped and molded by his environment and by those closest to him in his life. That Oscar Grant was a real person makes his story, and his destiny, all the more intriguing.
Early on the morning of January 1, 2009, Grant was riding the subway, headed for Oakland's Fruitvale Station on his way home with his friends and his girlfriend Sophina. At around 2am, he got into an altercation with another passenger. The police ordered Grant and his friends off the train. What happened between Oscar and the arresting officer became national news.
If you don't know the outcome of the events of that night, they will not be revealed here. Other critics have been quick to reveal it, and the film's opening moments - seen from a shaky cell phone recording - indicate what ultimately happened. Grant's violent encounter on that night is the ultimate destination of "Fruitvale Station" but the greatness of his film is in the journey. Here is a film that paints a portrait of a very specific individual who has a life, loved-ones, a mother and relationships both good and bad. It is a story of destiny and how the fortunate and unfortunate encounters in life come back around to help him and to damage him.
The movie follows the 24 hours in Grant's life preceding the incident. Played in a beautiful performance by Michael B. Jordan, our first glimpse of Oscar doesn't give us comfort. He's a young, 22 year-old black man in a heavy coat and a knit cap. Early in the film we see that his torso is emblazoned with tattoos. He's looks like your garden variety thug and one of the messages of "Fruitvale Station" is the importance of breaking down the notion of anything "garden variety." Cooglar's camera follows Oscar's day as if it were an omniscient presence. At all times, we see him going about his daily life, meeting friends, making choices both wise and unwise. Big-budget Hollywood movies have taught us to expect grand turning points, but this is not about that, it's about people.
Oscar is thoughtful and good hearted but he's no angel. He lives in Oakland with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He has cheated on her in the past, but she stays with him because she knows that under his rough exterior beats the heart of a good man. We can see that in his loving approach to their daughter Tatiana. Oscar has led a life of poor choices mainly due to his unfortunate temper. A flashback reveals that he spent some time in jail. He is a man filled with the loathing for the life he's led and the passion for wanting to move forward and make himself into a better man. He keeps things (such as his unemployment) from the women in his life, a method of personal pride. Oscar knows has made mistakes. His eyes betray a weary heart.
All around Oscar are people who care deeply about him. We meet at least a dozen people in this film, men and women who all connect as friends and family. For once, this is a movie about contemporary African Americans that has nothing to do with drugs or gangs. It has to do with people who just want to raise their families and do God's will. The most unexpected aspect of "Fruitvale Station" is the way in which it simply observes people without pushing them into phony plot gimmicks. At one point it takes time out for a birthday party. We see the family gathered together. The men sit in the living room discussing sports. The women in the kitchen cook, laugh and talk. We lean forward to hear their conversations. Cooglar's camera is intimate. He wants us to be in the room with them. Another scene, later, takes place in a stalled subway train. Someone starts playing music and, for a short time, the train becomes a dance party.
Oscar is part of a large family whose central strength comes from his mother Wanda, played in a magnificent performance by Octavia Spencer as a woman of faith and strength. Her relationship to her son is sometimes complicated (mainly due to his temper) but she loves him to the depths of her soul. She has a perfect moment deep into the film when, at a critical time, she pulls her family together in prayer. It is a powerful moment, not in an obvious way but in a way that allows it to flow organically from the story. Spencer is a good actress who won an Oscar two years ago for "The Help" and she pulls off an even better performance here.
The other great performance (one that will get overlooked) is by Melonie Diaz as Sophinia, Oscar's girlfriend and mother to his daughter. Their relationship is tender and real. She knows he's done bad things and she calls him to the carpet when she knows he's done bad things, but she sees deeply into his heart and knows that despite his flaws, he is a really a good man.
Nearly everything that happens to Oscar in this 24 hour period has a pay-off of some kind. This is one of those great movies that lays all the pieces of the puzzle out and then allows them to pay off in the film's third act. Oscar makes connections that we don't expect. Watch the way Oscar's casual good deed with a woman in a grocery store pays off later on the subway train. Watch the way a simple matter over a refusal for a hug turns around and comes back in the end. "Fruitvale Station" is one of the best films of the year.