Watching “Fruitvale Station”
I was a little wary of “Fruitvale Station.”
The buzz was very strong, but a lot of people seemed to be responding to the film not as a piece of cinema, but as a teachable moment. “Fruitvale Station” tells the true story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a transit cop in San Francisco in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, and I wondered whether people were embracing the film because it was important, rather than good. But I shouldn’t have worried. “Fruitvale Station” is one of the best films of the year.
What’s amazing is how enjoyable “Fruitvale Station” is, considering its downbeat ending. The film opens with real cellphone footage of Grant’s shooting, which caused at least one moviegoer to gasp during the screening of the film that I attended, and then transitions to a domestic scene featuring Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). The moment is fraught with tension — Sophina is angry because Oscar has cheated on her — but reaches a gentle resolution when Tatiana, unable to sleep, climbs in bed with her parents. Seemingly unimportant, this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, which follows Oscar around during his final hours.
Over the next 85 minutes or so, we get to know Oscar. We learn that he recently got out of prison and is trying to go straight; however, he just lost his job at a grocery store as a result of chronic lateness and loses his cool when the store owner won’t rehire him. We watch him chat up a pretty woman at the deli counter, and wonder whether he meant what he said when he assured Sophina that he had stopped cheating on her, and we see how shaken up he is when a speeding driver kills a dog. Most of all, we see that he loves his daughter, his girlfriend and his mom (Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for “The Help”), and that they love him. We understand that he is not a saint, but we like him, because he seems to have a good heart. The film is so observant, funny and full of life that we forget that Oscar is doomed.
The film builds slowly, eventually arriving at the fateful confrontation on the subway platform. This is difficult material, and first-time director Ryan Coogler never steps wrong, conveying how surprisingly easy it is for the most innocuous, even joyous, of moments to turn into a tragedy. He shows us the chaos that unfolded on the platform, the role social media played in bringing attention to it (the event was filmed by subway passengers) and Oscar’s shock and disbelief at being shot for so little. Coogler relies a little too much on jerky, handheld camera work, but the scene is so emotionally gut-wrenching it doesn’t matter. Like few other films, “Fruitvale Station” understands how surprising and inconvenient death can be. “I have a daughter!” Oscar tells the cop. Which is true, but will not save his life.
“Fruitvale Station” has its missteps. For one thing, it’s a little too contrived — you can sometimes feel Coogler punching up the drama. On the subway, Oscar runs into his enemies from prison and the pretty young woman from the deli counter simultaneously, which is pretty unlikely and almost certainly not how things unfolded in real life. There’s also some heavy-handed foreshadowing, such as the moment when Oscar tells Tatiana that he and Sophina are going out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and she says, “Daddy, I’m scared.” But “Fruitvale Station” is one of those films that’s more than the sum of its parts, and its lapses into melodrama are easily overlooked and forgotten. Especially when key scenes such as the prayer vigil in the hospital are handled as well as they are.
The performances in “Fruitvale Station” are uniformly excellent, and if there’s any justice Jordan, Spencer and Diaz will all be nominated for Oscars. They embody their roles so fully they seem like real people — real people who exist off-screen, and have hopes and dreams and worries and fears just like the rest of us. I expected “Fruitvale Station” to end with the shooting on the train platform, coiling back around to where it began, but it keeps going, relentlessly detailing the impact of a single shooting on victims and survivors alike. This is an important film, with much to say about violence, race and poverty. But that’s not why you should see it. You should see it because it’s really good.
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