Fruitvale Station rises to rank among the best-reviewed films of the year
Fruitvale Station is a portrait of a life cut short. Made with assurance and deep emotion, Fruitvale Station is more than a remarkable directing debut for 26-year-old Ryan Coogler. It’s an outstanding film by any standard.
Featuring a leap-to-stardom performance by Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale’s” demonstration of how effective understated, naturalistic filmmaking is at conveying even the most incendiary reality. It’s as hopeful as the story it tells is despairing.
“Fruitvale” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as the Un Certain Regard Prize of the Future at Cannes, and its story is a true one, a narrative that created national shock waves when it happened.
More after the cut. Here’s Sasha’s May 16 review of Fruitvale Station from Cannes.
Early on New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was shot in the back and killed by a transit policeman at the BART system’s Fruitvale station in Oakland. It was an event that went viral as transmitted cellphone videos of the incident sparked outrage and demonstrations.
An Oakland resident studying at USC’s film school at the time, Coogler not only identified closely with Grant (“It was kind of like it happened to me, or someone I knew,” he said at Sundance) but he also, as the finished movie demonstrates, understood both the sources of the event’s emotional impact and its implications for the neverending story of race and power in America.
It’s Coogler’s empathetic talent to be alive to what is happening on-screen, to know how much weight to place on any given moment, and best of all, to understand that the difference between giving things their due (rather than overdoing it) is the key to dramatic impact. A natural storyteller, he has the ability to let narrative simply unfold, to bring us in on the inside of a life even while working under the constraints of a tight budget and a 20-day shooting schedule.
What makes “Fruitvale” so effective is its determination to do justice to all aspects of Grant’s character, to resist the temptation to view him as anything other than the full, flawed human being we see on-screen.
In this, Jordan — memorable as the conflicted young drug dealer Wallace in “The Wire” — is essential. Coogler wrote the role of Grant, Osc to his friends, with the actor in mind. Not only does Jordan have Grant’s distinctive smile but he also, Coogler said at Sundance, can convey the particular combination of “warmth and an edge” that makes us feel we are experiencing the man as he must have been.
…as the day moves on, we also hear about and see the things that have bedeviled Oscar. Chronic lateness cost him his job at Joe’s, he’s been in prison, and he’s unnervingly quick to anger, a genuine good nature turning to livid fury in an instant.
As much as “Fruitvale Station” makes no attempt to hide these things, it is also insistent that they do not define the man. Oscar’s determination to change, to turn his difficult life around and make it better, could not be more sincere. By the time this terribly moving film is over, the fact that he was not given the chance seems genuinely tragic.
Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
Ryan Coogler’s magnificent “Fruitvale Station” opens with a shaky cellphone video of a now-infamous event—the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, a black, unarmed 22-year-old, by a white transit cop at a BART station in Oakland, Calif., in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. In other hands, the video might have been the starting point of a documentary about the victim, the disputed facts of the event and the community outrage that the shooting provoked. But Mr. Coogler chose another approach, a dramatized account of the day in Oscar’s life that preceded his death, and the film celebrates that life in all its beauty, contradiction and thwarted promise.
“Fruitvale Station” is a directorial debut of limitless promise; as a first feature it’s almost miraculous. At the age of 27 Mr. Coogler seems to have it all, and have it firmly in place—a clearsighted take on his subject (no airbrushing of flaws or foibles here, just confident brush strokes by a mature artist); a spare, spontaneous style that can go beyond naturalism into a state of poetic grace, and a gift for getting, or allowing, superb actors to give flawless performances.
Oscar Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, who gives a performance that can break your heart or fill it with joy, sometimes simultaneously. Oscar is not a model citizen. He’s casually unfaithful, dangerously impulsive and adrift in vague dreams of getting his act together. But he’s a charmer, and a lover. He loves the erratic, often anxiety-charged life he’s living, even though he’d prefer less anxiety and more stability. He loves his sorely tried mother, Wanda (an exquisite performance by Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend, Sophina, (Melonie Diaz) and, most of all, their young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), who can lift up his soul with an impish smile. It’s a measure of our involvement in this man’s fate that when he confesses to having done stupid things and Sophina says, angrily, “I could slap you,” we hope against hope that she takes him in her arms instead.
All too seldom in today’s movie business can a filmmaker be accused of wisdom, but Mr. Coogler has done something here that needs to be celebrated in its own turn. Like his subject, he’s a black man, and lives in the Bay Area, where Oscar lived. It would have been perfectly logical if he’d gone the documentary route, if only to highlight the appalling circumstances of Oscar’s death. (The cop who shot him claimed he’d mistakenly used a gun instead of a Taser, and received a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter.) We live, after all, in a golden age of documentaries, when low-cost digital equipment allows filmmakers to explore a vast range of complex subjects. But it’s a tarnished age for independently produced dramatic films that explore the essence and texture of American life, and “Fruitvale Station” fills that bill with dazzling distinction.
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
In the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was detained by transit police on a train platform in Oakland. Before anyone knew what was happening, an officer had shot and killed him. Grant hadn’t done anything wrong (except defend himself in an alleged fight on the train). His murder was a tragedy — and part of what was sickening was the way it reverberated alongside other killings of young African-Americans by trigger-happy law enforcers over the decades. The media, reporting on events like this one, have only fostered numbness where the outrage should be. But Ryan Coogler, the extraordinary first-time writer-director of Fruitvale Station, does more than just burn through the numbness. He puts us in touch with the full, wrenching humanity — the moral horror — of the crime as if we were seeing it for the first time.
Coogler’s simple, powerful strategy is to dramatize Grant’s life during the 24 hours leading up to his death. After showing cell-phone video of the actual murder, he draws his camera in close to Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as a flawed, complex ex-convict who fools around on his partner (Melonie Diaz) but loves her tenderly; sells drugs but is trying, with half a heart, to go straight; and is a good daddy to his daughter. Jordan’s performance is grippingly subtle: He shows us the despair that’s ruling Oscar, the street ‘tude he puts on like armor, and the joy that comes out only when he’s at the home of his mother (Octavia Spencer). Coogler immerses us in this life, so that when it’s cut short, you won’t just weep, you’ll cry out in protest. Fruitvale Station is great political filmmaking because it’s great filmmaking, period.
David Edelstein, New York Magazine
December 31, 2008, was a momentous day for San Francisco Bay Area resident Oscar Grant and now — with its edgy, overpowering dramatization in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station — for American cinema. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American ex-con and former drug dealer with a girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) who loves him despite one brief infidelity; a 4-year-old daughter named Tatiana (Ariana Neal); and no job. He was late for work at a supermarket one too many times. Now his back is against the wall…
Oscar inhabits a very public culture, an interdependent village of friends and family. What Coogler — in his first film—does harrowingly well is show how that village is full of dangerous corners, how every encounter has the potential to get ugly fast. It’s no one in particular’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault. Police are unnervingly ubiquitous. Watching Fruitvale Station, I thought of the “stop and frisk” policy of Mayor Bloomberg, who—no matter what you think of him—has an empathy gap. He doesn’t understand the cumulative effect of the presumption of guilt on people who already feel disenfranchised.
The end is as terrible as you fear—but it always feels preventable, not inevitable. Here are African-American men who’ve endured enough mistreatment and cops who rather than defuse a tense situation seem eager to escalate it. No one will let anything go. And so it goes. Fruitvale Station will rock your world — and, if the life of Oscar Grant means anything, compel you to work to change it.
Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
It would have been easy to turn Grant into a sacrificial lamb, glossing over his transgressions. Yet Coogler doesn’t sanctify the Bay Area man, who had served time for a drug conviction and cheated on his girlfriend, who is the mother of his beloved young daughter.
Michael B. Jordan is superbly multi-dimensional as Grant, who dotes on 4-year-old Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and is determined to be a better partner to Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He sells marijuana, but is trying to clean up his act. He adores his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), but a flashback shows he wasn’t always kind to her.
Jordan communicates the despair and yearning that underlie Grant’s streetwise charm. We feel his sadness at the casual cruelty he witnesses toward a stray dog. We smile as he joyously plays with his daughter and basks in the warmth of his family as they celebrate his mother’s birthday.
Jordan, who brings to mind a young Denzel Washington, nimbly taps into Grant’s inherent decency, as well as his weaknesses. He’s generous and warm, but also easily frustrated and wired. When he’s shot, after ringing in the New Year in San Francisco, there’s a real sense of lost potential.
Coogler sought to capture the truths he uncovered about Grant, through public records and interviews. He shot the film in the Bay Area neighborhood and locations that Grant frequented.
At the end, we learn that the officer who shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served only 11 months. We see the face of Grant’s real daughter at a memorial and are reminded that the living were also victimized.
This year’s big winner at the Sundance Film Festival, Fruitvale Station is a profoundly compelling, gut-wrenching and important film. It’s particularly timely in the wake of the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin. Most importantly, it reveals a face, heart and soul behind the heartbreaking headlines.