Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

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A day in a man’s life before he encounters tragedy.

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Ryan Coogler, 2013

Based on the true events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant III on New Year’s Eve 2008, this film follows 22-year-old Oscar on his last living day. We meet the recently unemployed Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) as he and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) work through personal problems while they take care of their daughter, four-year-old Tatiana (Ariana Neal). After dropping Tatiana off at day care, Oscar meets friends and acquaintances, preparing for a family meal that night to celebrate his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. He also remembers back to events that led him to where he is now, out of work and struggling to become a better man. That night, New Year’s Eve, he goes out with Sophina and some friends to party, not knowing he’ll never come back.

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Fruitvale Station is an exercise in crafting a narrative around one inevitable, horrifying moment: the death of the protagonist. When that’s the one thing the audience knows will happen in the film, how do you weave your story around it? This film uses its delicate strokes to paint the picture of Oscar as a complete, imperfect person: kind and caring one minute, angry and violent the next, Oscar evokes frustration and empathy in equal measure. He’s rather brilliantly real. The synergy between director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan is clear. They always pull back from tipping too far into melodrama, creating the sense that on Oscar’s last day, he was on the precipice of something: self-discovery, turning it all around or losing it all. One gets the impression that several moments in Oscar’s life have been conflated into this one day for storytelling purposes, but it doesn’t matter; when Oscar comforts a dying dog, or calls his grandmother to help the woman next to him in line, or yells at his mother, we’re there beside him. Unscripted moments are conveyed well via Michael B. Jordan’s rather excellent face. There’s a rare humanity to Fruitvale Station that many bigger films lack.

Jordan has some excellent support here, too, not least from Octavia Spencer. She’s a powerhouse as Oscar’s mother, long-suffering and just as imperfect as her son. She has moments of surpassing patience and kindness, but there’s a darkness in her past that lurks throughout her performance. Personal favourite Kevin Durand also turns in another solid supporting villainous performance as one of the police officers involved in the murder at the titular train station. That ending is a total gut-punch, even with the expectation that it will happen. Oscar’s final words, his friends and family reacting; Fruitvale Station doesn’t simply end with Oscar’s death, but captures how it effects everyone whose lives he touched. The film is shot beautifully, floating handheld camerawork capturing Oscar’s grey world effectively. Aside from some minor pacing and focus problems, it’s a masterpiece, and I fully expect to see both Jordan and Coogler at the Oscars within the next few years.¬†Given the current political situation in America, Fruitvale Station is one of those films that hang on a certain moment in history; in all honesty, it should be required viewing for American politicians and police officers. In its quiet honesty, it is the ultimate indictment of the establishment’s treatment of young Black men in America. It isn’t sensational, it isn’t manipulative, and when it’s over, you feel hollowed out by the unfairness of it all.

Fruitvale Station on IMDb

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