Fruitvale Station Reviews
Nice Film! Fruitvale Station is a solid film, well paced and edited, with a strong lead performance by Michael B. Jordan and some standout work by Octavia Spencer. One wonders how much of the screenplay is based on truth, but whether this is or isn't a biased view of an event by the filmmaker, it is highly emotionally affective filmmaking. In light of other recent, racially charged headlines, it cannot help but become a hot topic. This vivid, stark reenactment of an event that should never have happened is a relatively simple tale of a complex life, a kind of urban, American tragedy. It is a powerful, filmic statement that raises questions that demand answers.
This is the true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008 and feels something in the air. Not sure what it is, he takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions: being a better son to his mother, whose birthday falls on New Year's Eve, being a better partner to his girlfriend, who he hasn't been completely honest with as of late, and being a better father to T, their beautiful 4 year old daughter. He starts out well, but as the day goes on, he realizes that change is not going to come easy. He crosses paths with friends, family, and strangers, each exchange showing us that there is much more to Oscar than meets the eye. But it would be his final encounter of the day, with police officers at the Fruitvale BART station that would shake the Bay Area to its very core, and cause the entire nation to be witnesses to the story of Oscar Grant.
Powerfully portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in a (finally!) star making role, Oscar is never portrayed as a saint. He's flawed, he's made poor decisions, and he's unmistakably human. Coogler sensitively walks us through an ordinary day, capturing inconsequential encounters, the embrace of family and friends, and an array of the little moments we take for granted. We know the horrific endgame (and the film opens with real cellphone footage of the indecent), which makes the proceedings even more poignant and emotionally devastating... having to watch fate take it's course with a loss of life that was avoidable.
Ryan Coogler has made a small triumph of human storytelling. He takes an account that could be dismissed as a newsroom statistic and reveals to us the person therein that we can all relate to. Mr. Grant was no saint, but who can attest to being one? The fact of the matter is he loved, he was loved, and he deserved better.
Coogler creates a remarkable debut film for himself, one where the details of life feel richly realized and observed. Sure there are obvious symbolic metaphors introduced like boiling lobsters and a lost dog that dies in Oscar's arms (yes, foreshadowing), but as a whole Fruitvale Station feels like real life transposed onto celluloid. Coogler also works hard to humanize all the participants in his film, save for the transit cops at the end. There is a refreshing lack of judgment throughout the film as people are allowed to be the ambiguous creatures we are. No more so than Oscar. He has moments that make you wince, but mostly we watch a man struggling to get his life in order. He's terrific with his daughter, loving and naturally attentive; he puts his family's needs ahead of his own when it comes to money; he even helps a stranger learn how flash fry a fish, though there's a hint of flirtation guiding his actions. But he also can't hold onto a job, has trouble being more actionable in his life's decisions, and temptation is always banging on his door to lead him back to prison. He's a complicated man and Jordan (Chronicle) masterfully brings the man and his complexities to life. This is a star-making performance by Jordan (as was his turn on The Wire) and I was stunned at how easily Jordan dissolves completely into his role. There isn't a physical nuance or line delivery that feels false. It's a sympathetic humanization and Jordan's performance is a gift. Combined with Coogler's deft handling, Fruitvale Station is engrossing.
For much of the film I felt like I was attending a funeral. It's hard to watch at times, especially watching Oscar's family wait at the hospital for the news we already know is coming. It reminded me of 2006's United 93, where the overwhelming sense of dread held over every scene, every innocuous moment held the extra weight that it would be the last time this person was doing this or talking to this person; the dread of waiting for the end we all know is coming. Coogler opens his film with real phone video recordings of the death of Oscar Grant, so from the first moment on we're awaiting the horrible inevitability. I suppose it gives every moment an extra dimension of pathos, and to some this may be cheap and easy, but it all comes down to perspective. Surely if you knew the final day of your life, you'd likely find extra meaning in the simplest things, bidding goodbye in a thousand different subtle ways. This message isn't exactly new; it was already old when Thornton Wilder hammered it home in his 1937 play Our Town. Carpe Diem, seize the day, live every moment like it's your last, stop and smell the roses; you get the idea. And so, the entire running time of Fruitvale Station is a mournful examination on the contradictions, complexities, and connections of a single human life.
Oscar Grant is not lionized as a saint nor is he vilified as some mindless thug without redemption. Carefully, Coogler constructs a complicated man struggling to right his life. Through flashbacks we see he's spent time in prison, and he's got a quick flash of a temper that can lead him into impulsive and violent confrontations. It's significant that we see this prison flashback to summarize completely the life Oscar is trying not to return to. The temptation is always present to fall back on old patterns of comfort, namely cheating on his girlfriend (he has a lot of girls' numbers in his phone) and going back to selling drugs to make ends meet. Oscar's ongoing struggle with personal responsibility has cost him his supermarket job (he was late far too often), and he's kept this news to himself, choosing not to worry those close to him. But his options are limited as an ex-con, let alone a guy fighting his own demons, but he keeps fighting because the Oscar we see, the glimpses of what he could become, are one who wants to be better. He dumps his supply of drugs rather than go through with a sale. The gesture is noble but also partially self-destructive from a pragmatically financial way of thinking. He's in a deeper hole, money-wise, but he seems committed to making the change. A late encounter with a kind stranger also provides the possibility of a new job, a new chance, one that seems all the more tragic because we know it is a promise that will never be captured. Oscar Grant was likely never going to be a man who changed the world. He was an ordinary man. But we still mourn the death of ordinary men, even those who have made mistakes and are fallible.
It's impossible to view Fruitvale Station without its relevant connections to the Trayvon Martin case of 2012. Both of these men were black youths deemed to be "up to no good" with quick judgment skewed by prevailing racial bias. Both men were killed for being viewed as threats due to their race and gender. However, unlike Trayvon, we have a litany of witnesses and video evidence documenting the senseless execution of Oscar Grant. That transit officer argued he mistook his tazer for his gun because, surely, a suspect who is already handcuffed, face down on the ground, and having his head pressed down with the boot of an officer, surely that man needs to be tazed just for good measure. That officer, by the way, served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter (justice served?). It's senseless tragedy built upon miscalculated racial alarm, and the reason we have a movie, the reason there were riots in Oakland, is because this specific case had witnesses. How many other innocent young men die every year because someone wrongly and hastily deemed them to be "up to no good"?
Coogler isn't trying to stir the pot of racial animus or deify Oscar Grant into some martyr for the cause. Fruitvale Station only follows the last day of Oscar Grant's life but in doing so it becomes an illumination of a human life. Oscar was an ordinary man before he met so unfortunate an end, but Coogler wants us to remember him not simply as a newspaper headline, but as a person. It's a worthy endeavor that succeeds heartily but may prove to be dull to many, including several of my own friends and critical colleagues. I can't argue that the life of Oscar Grant is notable to follow beyond the sad final twenty minutes. But that doesn't bother me, because with the talents of Coogler and Jordan and their indomitable sense of purpose, the film becomes a fitting portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being and a life lived, not just a life prematurely extinguished. It's powerful, upsetting, brimming with emotion and fury, and it's also eerily relevant to today and will, I fear, only continue to be more relevant as the next Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin captures the national spotlight. Coogler's excellently realized film is a eulogy to an ordinary man, flaws and all, but also a call to do better.
Nate's Grade: A-
22 year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant (Michael B.Jordan) has a bit of colourful past but he wants to change so that he can be a better son to his mother (Octavia Spencer), a better partner to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and, most importantly, a better father to his young daughter (Ariana Neal). However he hard he tries, though, his fate isn't always in his own hands.
In the event of giving away too many details, I'll try to avoid spoilers where I can here. I'm sure that by now, most people will be aware of how the events played out, either by reading others' reviews or being aware of it first hand but it's not my intention to reveal anything for those that are still in the dark. As previously mentioned I knew very little about the story other than hearing some glowing reviews (which I largely avoided) and that the film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. These were enough to know that I had to check the film out. I'm really glad I did, but it also left me speechless. When the end credits were rolling, I sat in silence with the emotional weight almost too heavy to bare.
This is a heartfelt and harrowing story that benefits all the more from first time director Ryan Cooglar's documentary like approach. There is a heavy sense of realism and the largely unknown cast, deliver fantastic performances. The real standout is, of course, a towering lead performance by Michael B. Jordan. The only time I've seen this actor was in 2012's impressive found-footage film "Chronicle" but after this, I'm certain we'll be seeing a lot more of him. This young actor is a real talent and he brings the requisite heart and commitment to portraying Oscar Grant. He makes sure that we empathise with his character despite his personal flaws and maintains the balance of a story that could easily have fell too far into sentiment or manipulation. Oscar Grant was a family man but he was by no means perfect. He struggled to provide for his family and had served time in prison for drug dealing, as well as possessing a temper that would often get him in trouble. Despite these failings, his heart always seemed in the right place and Jordan displays a whole myriad of emotions to capture this flawed individual striving for a better life. Will Jordan be remembered when the Academy Award nominations are handed out? Probably not, but I certainly wouldn't complain if he did feature. He delivers one of the performances of the year here.
With all this in mind, it would seem that this is a downbeat and depressing film. It's not. For the most part, we are given an intimate glimpse into this man's life and there are many positives to be taken from it. The approach is naturalistic and never comes across as intrusive or with a heavy heart. That is... until the devastatingly, visceral and emotional finale.
With a solid, multi-dimensional, leading performance that's reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, Michael B. Jordan will not go unrecognised. Nor will the very talented writer-director Ryan Cooglar who, in his debut, delivers one the best and most harrowing films of 2013.
Michael B. Jordan is, by turns, youthful and grave - quick with his street patois bravado and quietly stunned with his last waking breaths. Octavia Spencer gives another spectacular performance as the face of tough yet fierce motherly love. Her reaction in the penitentiary's visiting room after Oscar insults her is remarkably restrained; her hurt is evident but she knows that it's no weapon to throw back at her wayward son.
The film is pretty even and "important enough" until the end when the emotional manipulation hits the fan. The shooting is already shown as a prologue, so the foreshadowing of taking the BART that leads to Oscar's imminent demise and Wanda's teary speech blaming herself for suggesting mass transit over drunk drivers on NYE is excessive. After the shooting, the trigger-happy cop looks shocked and disgusted by the metaphorical blood on his hands, and the asshole cop who detained Oscar and his friends takes Oscar's hand comfortingly as the former bleeds out on the platform. I don't know if the cops' reactions were true, but it all felt a little too manufactured. The epilogue with the real life footage of Oscar's daughter, Tatiana Grant, could only be more cliche if it was underscored by "Amazing Grace." By the end, the movie doesn't seem to say much about race or class or police brutality or law. It relies too much on pathos appeals to make this "a human story," not just a race or class story, which I find somewhat of a cop-out. The balance could have tipped more to the political instead of just the emotional.
For much of this film, the story-telling is reserved and terse. The narrative, aided by a fine performance by Michael B. Jordan, tries to neither deify nor demonize Oscar as we are shown his fatherly love and his aborted drug deals, his filial love for his mother and his lying about getting fired. The film convinces us that he is trying to get his life in order when tragedy interrupts. All this makes for compelling drama, but writer/director Ryan Coogler slips into melodrama with his slow motion runs with his daughter and his mother's wistful recollection of the day's events.
It goes without saying that Oscar Grant's death is an unspeakable tragedy and an injustice, especially with Trayvon Martin still in the headlines, and to Coogler's credit, the film is not overtly political, allowing the facts to speak for themselves and the emotional effect to become all the more poignant.
Overall, this is an excellent film that tugs on the heartstrings (occasionally too hard), and afterwards I felt emotionally drained.