Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s bold feature-directing debut, Fruitvale Station, is one of the year’s best films. It tells the true story of Oscar Grant, the man shot to death by a cop early on New Year’s Day 2009 at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, Calif., while he was with the mother of his child.
If you’ve seen the cell-phone videos taken of Grant pleading with officers as he and his friends were being brutalized, you’ve seen a man who looked more than reasonable as events transpired. As one cop turned him onto his stomach and put his knee onto Grant’s neck, another inexplicably took out his gun and shot Grant once, fatally, through the back.
The officer claimed he was just trying to use a Taser on Grant. Mistake or not, it doesn’t matter: That officer, without reason, took Grant’s life while a throng of BART riders watched in horror.
Coogler could’ve made a angry film, screaming in the face of a justice system that cost this young man his life, and that young man’s daughter a father. However, he has made something far more important, effective and nuanced: He has made a movie that fleshes out Grant so he’s more than those few minutes captured on frantic people’s phones. It’s a movie that concentrates on the life taken, the people he loved, and the lives that were to be lived together. It’s a heartbreaking viewing experience, anchored by a brilliant performance from Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Grant.
The film starts with the infamous phone footage of Grant’s murder, and then flashes back to Grant and his girlfriend, Sophina (the excellent Melonie Diaz), having a fight about Oscar’s alleged infidelity. He’s a man stumbling while tyring to recover from a prison stay: He’s attempting to keep his job, raise his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and make his mother Wanda (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) proud.
It is Wanda who suggests that Oscar and Melonie take BART on New Year’s Eve to celebrate safely—and it is Wanda who realizes that she made the suggestion as she says goodbye to her son’s corpse. Spencer makes this a scene you will not soon forget.
Coogler and Jordan re-create the tragedy at the end of the movie. They portray Grant just as he appeared in those cellular-phone videos: He’s just a guy caught up in an unfortunate situation who is trying to be reasonable with the police in order to get himself and his friends home.
Of course, we already know what happened, making every second of the sequence as unbearable as it should be. The cop who shot Grant is already walking free after serving about a year for involuntary manslaughter. Coogler pulls no punches in depicting the abhorrent behavior of those cops.
Jordan delivers a graceful, star-making performance—the type of work that will put him on a lot of directors’ radars. As portrayed by Jordan, Grant has his problems, including a temper that sometimes gets him into trouble. A jail scene in which Wanda comes to visit him is one of the film’s most memorable.
Coogler and Jordan reportedly plan to work together again on Creed, a Rocky spin-off that follows the grandson of Rocky Balboa’s former opponent as he looks to Balboa for guidance in his boxing career. Stallone has shown interest, and it looks to be a go. It sounds like fun.
As for Fruitvale Station, this movie will get some notice come awards season. It’s an important film about something that should’ve never happened—and a movie everyone should see.
Fruitvale Station is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage, 760-770-1615); the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, 760-323-4466); and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert, 760-779-0430).