From soup to nuts, it takes a long time to make a movie happen – and even longer if you’re an indie director trying to sell your first feature. Nevertheless, perhaps by mere coincidence, every once in a while a film comes out that captures the zeitgeist so acutely that it feels like it must’ve been shot in its entirety the day before. Opening broadly on the very day that George Zimmerman was exonerated for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station is one of those films.
Making Fruitvale Station was a labor of love for 27-year-old black director Ryan Coogler, a product of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts who had previously only made short films, three of which won significant awards. He’s also a youth counselor at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, and he grew up in Oakland. So when a young black man named Oscar Grant III was shot in the back at point-blank range while pinned to the floor by a police officer in the titular Bay Area Rapid Transit station on January 1, 2009 – an incident captured on cellphone cameras that quickly went viral – Coogler knew that he had found his subject. That could have been him, or one of the young men whom he counsels.
The novice director got lucky: Actor Forest Whitaker was looking for up-and-coming filmmakers to mentor, heard about the project and signed on as a producer. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, became one of his investors. Best of all, through his work contacts the director was able to meet the Grant family’s attorney and enlist the support of the family members themselves. Oscar’s story would be told cinematically, and not by some unauthorized biographer or big studio out to make some quick blaxploitation bucks.
Coogler was able to sign Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Chronicle), his first choice to play Oscar Grant, and recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer to play his mother Wanda. The result is a remarkably impressive debut feature that copped both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Best First Film award in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. And now it’s in a theatre near you.
This movie isn’t perfect, but it’s one that needed to be made, and needs to be seen. It starts with some of the cellphone footage of the actual murder, then jumps us back in time to the beginning of Oscar Grant’s last day on Earth. There are some flashbacks to time that he spent in San Quentin for dealing marijuana, but otherwise the narrative takes place over the course of a single day. There is some compression of events, of course, and dramatic license; the woman who taped Grant’s shooting probably wasn’t really the same white stranger whom he had given his grandmother’s fish-fry recipe at the supermarket seafood counter earlier that same day. But what the director delivers is an effective snapshot of the bumpy upward trajectory that the young ex-con’s life was on when it was so tragically interrupted by racial profiling and highly unprofessional overreaction on the part of a police unit.
Though sympathetic, the protagonist is not portrayed as without flaws. Besides his criminal record, he has just lost his job due to chronic lateness, and the pressure to pay the rent on January 1 very nearly drives him back into dealing pot. But the memory of how his loyal longtime girlfriend Sophina (a tough-and-radiant Melonie Diaz) and his staunch, long-suffering mother had to lie to his little daughter about where Daddy was while he was incarcerated drives him to chuck his last Ziplock bag of weed into the bay instead of selling it. Things aren’t going well for Oscar, but he’s determined to make some changes for the better.
A lot of Fruitvale Station’s theme is the central role that family ties play in America’s black communities. Oscar dotes on his adorable daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), indulging her even when Mommy says no, and the desire to do right by her is his most powerful motivation. The film’s biggest narrative flaw, in fact, is its idealization of Oscar’s fatherly behavior; surely every parent finds reason to correct a child, or gets a little short with her, or fails to listen intently to something she says, at least once in the course of a long day. The relationship is just a little too perfect – more than it needs to be to convince us that this Dad is a fundamentally decent man who is doing the best he can under difficult circumstances. The scene where Oscar tries to save a dog who gets hit by a car is a bit excessive as well. He’s a nice guy; we get it.
Spencer as Wanda, the anchor for this family through thick and thin, is brilliant and utterly believable. She’s not a saint; she gives us glimpses of her exasperation when her son lapses into laziness or looks for someone else to blame for his failures. But when the going gets really tough, she’s the rock. The scene where she realizes that her son might not have died had she not advised him to take the BART instead of driving on New Year’s Eve, for his own safety, is heartrending.
The acting is fine all around in Fruitvale Station, but this film will likely be remembered mainly as Michael B. Jordan’s breakout performance. Fleeting changes of emotion play over his face as lightly as schools of fish suddenly changing direction. He gifts us with a fully humanized portrait of a young black man who wears a hoodie, has a police record and turns up the rap music too loudly in his car, but is no less sensitive and thoughtful than his age peers who have enjoyed much more in the way of education and socioeconomic advantages.
Skillfully guided by Coogler, Jordan makes us mourn at Grant’s death and rage at his killer’s absurdly light sentence. And the film as a whole forces us to confront our own tendencies to step more warily when someone who looks like him passes through our neighborhoods – even if he’s armed only with a soft drink, a bag of Skittles and a handy sidewalk. It’ll make you feel, and it’ll make you think; and neither of those is a bad thing.