If nothing else, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s amazing debut feature Fruitvale Station rebukes the notion that knowing a movie’s outcome going in diminishes its power.
Even if you don’t know how Oscar Grant’s story ended in real life, Fruitvale Station takes the question out of play within sixty seconds. The movie opens with a devastating cell-phone video (presumably a real one) showing a scuffle between a cohort police officers and a group of young black men in the Fruitvale station on the Oakland subway line. A gunshot sounds, the onlooking passengers scream in disbelief, and suddenly we’re transported to New Year’s Eve 2009, Oscar Grant’s last night on Earth.
Fruitvale Station is not an action movie. It’s not about what’s going to happen next. It’s about inevitability, possibility, humanity. Oscar Grant is no saint, no martyr, but a man, a human like the rest of us. He loves his girlfriend, he adores his daughter, he cares about his mother, he wants to stop dealing drugs and find honest work supporting his family. He’s not perfect: he can be crude, insensitive, even ignorant. He didn’t deserve to die, but neither does anyone else. By the end, we come to understand that Oscar’s death symbolizes the sad reality of many things (racial prejudice, criminal profiling, police brutality, drug woes), but more than anything his death is sad because his life was cut so short by circumstances that a more refined system could have prevented.
With one exception (a flashback to one year earlier, when Oscar’s mother Wanda visits him in prison and decides she’s had enough of his self-destructive behavior), Coogler keeps Fruitvale Station rooted firmly in the present. Oscar wakes up, takes his daughter to school, visits the grocery store where he used to work before his boss fired him for being late too often, calls his mother to wish her a happy birthday, gathers with his family to celebrate, heads to the city with his wife to have some fun before the pressures of the new year rear their ugly head, and emerges in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie’s most powerful moments occur in the spaces between these plot points: Oscar contributing his grandmother’s expertise in the art of the fish fry to a clueless young woman in the grocery store; Oscar’s daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) asking about “dark butter”; Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) swearing off carbs and reminding Oscar that Oprah said 30 days is all it takes to break a habit; Wanda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, wonderful) gently chiding Oscar for calling her during his work, until he reminds her that it’s his day off. By the time the inevitable conclusion of Fruitvale Station arrives in its devastating way, Oscar Grant is not a movie character or a symbol, but a human being.
Much of the credit for the power of this movie has to go to Michael B. Jordan, who gives a towering performance in a very difficult part. Jordan delivered heartbreaking work on the final two seasons of Friday Night Lights, but he outdoes himself here, with haunted eyes that simultaneously reveal the pain he feels for letting down his family and the insecurities that prevent him from turning his life around. He’s also tender when playing with his onscreen daughter, aggressive when confronted by a drug dealer from his past, and charming when his girlfriend needs to use a bathroom during the New Year’s Eve festivities. If Jordan’s performance were one-dimensional, his mannerisms unconvincing or his demeanor melodramatic, this movie would fall apart, because we need to be invested in Oscar in order to recognize the injustice of his slight. But Jordan succeeds, injecting the movie with an almost painful tug of emotion.
Fruitvale Station occasionally indulges in screenwriter-ly contrivances. Oscar meets a woman during his morning supermarket run, and she ends up on the train near him when he’s killed. Characters occasionally make references to dying or death in a way that feels like Coogler reminding us of what’s to come more than we need to be reminded. A scene involving a miserable dog and a gas station seems too metaphorically loaded by half. In these moments, Fruitvale Station feels like a movie version of real events. But when the artifice falls away, when the significance of the event and the humanity of these people shines through, Fruitvale Station proves a powerful, succinct reminder of the injustices that plague our country every day.