Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: "Fruitvale Station"

Fruitvale Station (then called simply Fruitvale) won general acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Ryan Coogler's first feature film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for drama at the film festival held in Utah in January. It is a disturbing and haunting film detailing the true story of Oscar Grant III's last day before being killed in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009 at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. Many articles have cited the links between the film and the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Like Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin was a young African American male who were shot, and both events causes a maelstrom of racially sensitive publicity. Fruitvale Station is an emotionally powerful film that paints a one-sided portrait of Oscar Grant. He is depicted as a loyal, sincere and incredibly empathetic man whose life was often lived on the wrong side of the law. Grant is very bravely and humanly played by Michael B. Jordan, a twenty-six year old actor who has deservedly won numerous accolades for his performance. Jordan has come a long way from the young man who played Wallace on The Wire in 2002. The film provides many emotional insights into Grant's final hours, especially between mother and son and father and daughter. Grant, at twenty-two years of age, has not fully evolved into his role as a father. He is still the fun-loving child who teases and adores his young daughter. It is his relationship with his mother (Octavia Spencer) that holds the film together. She enables him to be an empathetic character and their relationship balances the film. Fruitvale Station is an emotionally profound film with a career-changing performance from Michael B. Jordan. While its climax is never in question, its path is worth watching and that makes its conclusion all the more powerful.

Oscar Grant III (Jordan) lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter Tatiana. He has spent time in prison on two occasions. On New Year's Eve 2008 he is desperately clinging to a job he has already lost as a butcher. He is trying to turn his life around for the benefit of his family. New Year's Eve is also his mother Wanda's (Spencer) birthday. He wants desperately to make her proud. Their relationship has come along way from her prison visits, presented in flashbacks. Grant wants to have a quiet evening with his girlfriend, but Sophina wants to see the fireworks in San Francisco. Wanda convinces Grant to travel on the subway instead of driving, which ultimately leads to his death.

I watched Fruitvale Station shortly before seeing the documentary Blackfish. While Blackfish is a terrific and terrifying documentary that succeeds in its goal, it is also a completely one-sided film. Fruitvale Station only tells the story of Oscar Grant III in the hours leading up to his death. There is a bigger picture, including why the officer pulled the fatal trigger. But that is a less powerful story. I would not be as outraged if I had a more complete idea of what happened. Nonetheless, Michael B. Jordan owns the screen as a complicated man who years to change his life around. The women in his life are on his side and want to see him succeed. And because the film depicts Grant as a hero, his death is all the more tragic. Octavia Spencer was an inspired choice to play Wanda Johnson. She balances the strong-willed and hurt woman who wants nothing more than to see her son achieve great things. Fruitvale Station does however force you to consider the issue of race so present in the film. Do you really think Oscar Grant III would have been shot if he was white? It is not a new question to consider, but it is evidently a very topical and necessary one.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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