In light of the recent acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in Florida, the relevance of a film like Fruitvale Station cannot be argued. You have to wonder if anything has changed at all.
A few hours after midnight on January 1, 2009, a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was detained by transit police on a train platform in Oakland, California. Held face down and handcuffed, Oscar was shot in his back by an officer, the injury killing him.
Oscar hadn’t done anything wrong, except defend himself in a fight in the train. That horrific incident, captured on cell-phone cameras by shocked commuters, went viral immediately, sparking off widespread protests and raising questions about racism, violence, and the value – if any – of a black person’s life.
Fruitvale Station, named after the location of that fateful shooting, is helmed by first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler, who appears determined not to let Oscar’s story be filed away as a statistic. With a terrific collaborator in Michael B Jordan, who delivers a subtle, nuanced performance as Oscar, the filmmaker shows us the real person behind the headlines. Oscar is a flawed, complex fella. He’s recently served time in prison, possibly for dealing drugs, but he wants to go straight to support his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their daughter. Jordan skillfully embraces Oscar’s contradictions and complexities, constructing a fully realized, humanistic portrait of a confused man struggling to do the right thing.
The other riveting performance in this film comes from The Help’s Octavia Spencer in the part of Oscar’s mother. In only a handful of scenes, Spencer establishes the closeness her character shares with her son, masterfully avoiding melodrama at every turn.
The film’s early half is a little too schmaltzy, crammed as it is with too many scenes that point to Oscar’s kind heart and potential that sadly couldn’t be fully realized. It’s meant to make the gut punch of the film’s climax that much harder. But it doesn’t matter, because the first-rate acting, and the knowledge that this actually happened makes this a deeply moving film. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Fruitvale Station. It’s a story that deserved to be told, because it’s an issue that refuses to go away.