Mark Reviews Movies

Fruitvale Station


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O'Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal 

MPAA Rating: R (for some violence, language throughout and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 7/12/13 (limited); 7/19/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 19, 2013

It's a little disconcerting how calm Fruitvale Station is. The film, which dramatizes the life of a young man in the hours leading up to his involvement in a tragic and fatal incident, has every right to be outraged—to throw its hands up to the sky and cry out to the heavens in a rage of righteous indignation. Some might even go so far as to say that the film has a responsibility to do that.

It's impossible to determine what kind of film that version of this story would be, given that writer/director Ryan Coogler, in his feature film debut, has not rendered the story in that manner. Where the film could have beatified its subject in order to emphasize his tragic and pointless fall, it is instead sympathetically honest. Where it could have been angry when the story reaches an act of violence that is likely an accidental result of negligence yet completely unnecessary and avoidable, the film is instead clinical—an anatomy of the process of a slow death, with the focus on the anguish of loved ones waiting with simultaneous hope and dread for the moment news will come.

The film does not judge. It does not need to. A jury has spoken. A sentence has been given (reduced and with one charge overturned by the judge) and, at this point, served. The film wisely avoids the interior of a courtroom for its epilogue; it simply tells us the result in a text coda. If the film dramatized even part of the trial, it would become a story of the legal system. It would become the story of the defendant who was captured on the video cameras of multiple cell phones drawing his firearm and discharging a round into the back of a young man who already handcuffed and on the ground.

Footage of that incident starts the film. This story, of course, made national news, so the images—blocked on occasion by the heads of even more witnesses—of white transit police officers standing over a group of young, black men sitting against the wall of a train station is familiar. The video ends with the deafening sound of a gunshot, and if one did not know what happened in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland, California, the answer is unambiguous.

Less than 24 hours prior, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, commanding throughout) is in the bedroom of his home with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, strong but with a sense of fragility). Right from the start, the screenplay gives us a less-than-flattering view of Oscar. The first conversation between him and Sophina revolves around the fact that she recently caught him cheating on her. She loves him, but one has to wonder how much their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) figures into why Sophina is still with him.

He's been unemployed for weeks—fired for repeatedly not showing up—and has been lying to Sophina about heading to work after driving with her to her job and dropping off Tatiana at school. Today is his "day off," but he's returning to the supermarket that was former place of employment to convince his old manager to give him back his job. The discussion turns aggressive when the boss refuses, with Oscar yelling at and grabbing him. He also helps out a college student named Katie (Ahna O'Reilly) who's trying to shop for a fish fry. The lengths to which he goes, including calling his grandmother (Marjorie Shears) to give this stranger advice, show another side to him, but then we remember his conversation with Sophina and wonder if there's another agenda here that gets diverted after the argument with his former boss.

It gradually becomes clear what Coogler is doing with this slice-of-life observation of Oscar's day. There's a clear dichotomy between intentions and actions, and we're left to actively consider if we can determine Oscar's character based on one, the other, or a combination of both. He may become hostile toward the manager of the store, but it's only out of desperation when faced with the fact that he won't be able to provide for his family.

Later, faced with the knowledge that he won't have a steady source of income, he decides to sell a bag of marijuana to a friend who's planning to distribute it. Sitting on the beach, waiting for the friend to arrive, he recalls when he was in jail and his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer in a devastating performance), whose birthday party in the film's present day is film's final respite before fate begins catching up to the story, came to visit. He's in a constant state of irritation (Another prisoner is threatening him for being a "snitch"), and his mother can only resort to tough love. The memory is enough, and Oscar dumps the bag of weed into the ocean.

Do we assess who Oscar is based on his temptation to return to his old ways or on his decision to leave them behind? In the other scenario, do we give more weight to his motivation to provide for his family than the way he acts out on his emotional response?

The real question, which comes into focus when Oscar and his friends are being questioned by a group of police officers (led by an antagonistic one played by Kevin Durand, whose character shows an entirely different side when confronted with the film's central incident) for a fight they didn't start or participate in, is whether it really matters. Fruitvale Station is about trying to see a young man whom most people only know from a video. Maybe if we weren't so keen to judge another human being with whatever preconceived notions—malicious or not—we might possess, senseless tragedy like this could be avoided.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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