A grieving mother second-guesses why she persuaded her son to take the train instead of letting him drive on New Year’s Eve. If only …
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
It’s one of many “whys” and “what ifs” viewers are left pondering in “Fruitvale Station.” But the foremost question is how come so many young black men are shot to death?
This drama doesn’t so much answer the question as illustrate its consequences by following a victim throughout his final day. The result is one of the year’s best films, an engrossing slice of life that builds to an inevitable, devastating conclusion.
The picture opens with the real-life footage — captured via cellphone — of a 2009 incident at an Oakland, Calif., BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) platform. There, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a transit police officer in front of dozens of witnesses while cuffed and pinned to the ground. He was unarmed.
Most Hollywood adaptations would use this topical tragedy as a springboard for a tale about a family’s crusade against police injustice — or something like that. Instead, “Fruitvale Station” flashes back to the beginning of Oscar’s morning. The story draws power from the simple rhythms of a day spent with family, friends and strangers.
Oscar (the outstanding Michael B. Jordan of TV’s “The Wire”) embodies a mass of contradictions. He’s a loving father to his young daughter (Ariana Neal). But he’s an unfaithful boyfriend to his live-in Hispanic girlfriend (Melonie Diaz). He’s polite and helpful, even to people he just met. But he’s got a hair-trigger temper. He’s an ex-con focused on staying clean and employed. But he gets fired for repeatedly showing up late to his supermarket job.
We’ve all met an Oscar before. Easygoing. Charismatic. Frustrating.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s debut is distinguished by strong, natural performances. Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) portrays Oscar’s mother, avoiding histrionics at every emotional turn. A key flashback scene to a prison visitation with her son reveals the depth of her character. She’s not a scolder or screamer; her role in the family is to hold things together, even if it means making harsh choices. (“Fruitvale Station” earned honors at this year’s Sundance and Cannes fests, and it seems destined for recognition at the Academy Awards, especially in the acting categories.)
The film is really more about tone than twists. The 27-year-old Coogler, an Oakland native, uses only one gimmick: Whenever a cellphone is used, a word graphic pops up to clarify who is called and what is texted. Otherwise, he simply lets his characters interact with ease and clarity during long takes. This builds to a remarkably joyous encounter as commuters on a delayed BART train count down the new year together.
Then it all turns. A fistfight breaks out that involves Oscar and his friends. The BART police are called. Things get ugly quick.
It’s a harrowing, unforgettable sequence that unfolds like a nightmare. And it’s depicted clinically, without judgment. Of course, viewers will insert their own political/social/racial perspective to this fateful collision. Draw their own conclusions. Launch their own Facebook tirades.
Regardless, the essential message of “Fruitvale Station” is one of humanity. It’s not important that you like Oscar Grant. But it’s important you understand who he is.