'Fruitvale Station': First-time director succeeds with tragic true tale
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Fruitvale Station" is a movie that wants to make you cry, and wants to make you mad. And it's a movie that's absolutely one hundred percent right in wanting those things from you. This tightly constructed drama, the debut feature from 26-year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler, dramatizes the events that led up to a real-life abomination: the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American being taken into custody by transit police in the Bay Area in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009.
As portrayed by the great young actor Michael B. Jordan, Oscar's a complicated person in the way all of us are complicated. He has a loving but clearly tense and tetchy relationship with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He's a doting father to the daughter he has with Sophina, Tatiana, or as almost everybody calls her, "T." He also seems to have a good relationship with his mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer). On the other hand, soon after he tells Sophina that his New Year's resolution is to stop dealing weed, we learn he's lost his low-level supermarket job on account of chronic tardiness. After begging his former boss for the gig back, he lets his frustration get the better of him and shows the guy a bit of his roughneck side. A little later, contemplating making a big score from one of his reliable doper clients, we're shown a flashback of Oscar's time in the joint; a tidy little scene showing his belligerence with guards and his lack of friendly relations with some white-supremacist-looking fellow inmates. Oscar's not a saint.
But neither am I, and neither are you, I bet, and one scene in mid-movie, when Oscar confesses to Sophina that he hasn't been working and wishes out loud that he could find the strength to "not f—k up for thirty days," brings the character's flawed and full humanity center stage in a remarkably striking way. At that point, I thought, "This scene IS the movie," but from that point "Fruitvale Station" gets even stronger, and if its harrowing climax seems to bring together too many explicitly foreshadowed elements in a too-neatly contrived way, its depiction of police confusion and bad behavior, and its sobering hospital scenes, are sufficiently potent to give nitpickers pause as their tear ducts fill up.
All of the performances are wonderful, and Coogler's story sense is sturdy to say the least. He also knows how to let the little scenes, the depictions of the quotidian details of the characters' lives, unfold in a patient, unselfconscious way. He does make some rookie director unforced errors in judgment, particularly in the overuse of handheld camera. Really, when you're doing a largely static medium close-up of two characters in profile facing each other, it's not a sin to break out the tripod.
This movie is sure to be a conversation piece, and it should. I came into it with a largely skeptical attitude; my knowledge of the incident gave me the sense that it was a horrible tragedy, but I've also been around the block enough times to be wary of ticking off cops, for whom however lousy a day you've had never constitutes an extenuating circumstance. By the end of "Fruitvale Station," though, not only was I deeply moved emotionally, but I felt a newly honed sense of social injustice and understanding that, African-American president or not, there's no way that America is a "post racial" society.