Settling in for Fruitvale Station, I already knew where Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan)’s story was headed. Grant’s final moments, in the first hours of 2009, facedown on cold pavement with a bullet from the gun of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer lodged in his back, have been immortalized through the media. The shooting sparked protests across the city of Oakland and made headlines worldwide.
What I never could have expected was how Ryan Coogler’s utterly devastating dramatization of the incident, and of the quiet, normal days leading up to it, would pull me into Oscar’s life and force me to see the world through his eyes in a way I never would have believed possible. That’s the brilliance of Fruitvale Station – it’s a brutal and heartbreaking documentation of a national tragedy, to be sure, but it’s also an involving work about the beauty of Oscar’s life, and of life as a whole.
Part of what allows the film to excel is that it never presumes to portray Oscar as a saint. Credit Coogler’s natural flare for dialogue and Jordan’s tremendous performance. The actor, best known for supporting roles in Chronicle and HBO’s The Wire, makes one hell of a first impression in his first starring role. The film would be nothing without its lead actor, and Jordan turns in one of the best, most wonderfully human performances of the year, capturing Oscar’s strengths, faults and inspiring love for life. Oscar isn’t perfect – he’s served time for drug dealing, he’s hot-tempered and, by the time the film takes place, he’s repeatedly cheated on Sophina (Melonie Diaz) his long-time girlfriend and also the mother of his child (Ariana Neal). However, Jordan cuts to the core of Oscar’s loving, gentle demeanor, revealing him as a young man who, weighed down by past transgressions, is valiantly struggling to pull his life together. His terror at the prospect of fatherhood, his frustration at the lack of steady work available in Oakland, his strong sense of commitment, it all comes through in Jordan’s luminous performance.
Some critics have accused Fruitvale Station of bending the truth to elicit sympathy for Oscar, but any of Coogler’s choices that take small liberties do so in order to widen the film’s scope, to make points about racism and murder that wouldn’t come across otherwise. For example, in one powerful scene, Oscar witnesses a dog getting hit by a car. The pitbull (one often unfairly feared dog) never saw it coming, and the driver responsible for killing him evades all responsibility in a quick escape. Death comes when you least expect it, and it’s never fair, says the scene. It’s not hard to find painful parallels between the pitbull and Oscar himself.
Coogler could have made a straight film about the shooting of Oscar Grant. Instead, he chose to paint a fascinating portrait of modern American life, one in which death plays a prominent role, to be sure, but more of a celebration of life than a prolonged eulogy. Oscar is more of a man than a martyr, and though you will feel fury at his sudden, preventable death, Fruitvale Station is more about making you appreciate the value of his life.
Though Jordan is the clear revelation of Fruitvale Station, both Diaz and Octavia Spencer (playing Oscar’s enduring mother) turn in terrific performances. Diaz effortlessly communicates the delicate tightrope Sophina walks between her professional and personal lives, as she attempts to build on her relationship with Oscar, care for her daughter and keep a roof over their heads. She’s fierce, compassionate and powerfully moving to watch, particularly during the shooting. Meanwhile, Spencer radiates silent strength and dignity as Oscar’s loving, tough-as-nails mother. One plea to family members late in the film is enough to make you weep. In a less crowded year, Spencer would be a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
By approaching his sensitive subject with both passion and commendable even-handedness, Coogler succeeds in making a film that, by presenting Grant without glorifying him, captures just as much of the spirit and energy of Grant’s life as it does the staggering horror of his death. In short, it’s a heart-wrenching drama of the highest caliber.
The Blu-Ray for Fruitvale Station is outfitted with a 1080p high-definition transfer, which effectively conveys the gritty realism of Oakland as a setting. The resolution is mostly clear throughout, with a focus on small details, though certain scenes demonstrate more graininess than others. It’s rarely distracting, but the effect is likely more a result of Coogler’s documentary-style filming than Anchor Bay’s transferring. Fruitvale Station is not a film that many will seek out for its visuals, but they are acceptable all the same.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is also sufficient for Coogler’s purposes, naturally blending background sound effects and dialogue. Again, Fruitvale Station is driven much more by story than effects, audio or visual, so there’s nothing special on display, and a few more unusual sound effects are poorly assembled. However, Anchor Bay Entertainment’s professional treatment of the release allows viewers to become more deeply involved in the story.
Fruitvale Station comes with two sizable special features:
- Fruitvale Station: The Story of Oscar Grant
- Q&A with Cast and Filmmakers
“The Story of Oscar Grant” runs about 21 minutes and spends an unfortunate amount of that time with various individuals who worked on the film, all of whom have glowing praise for their colleagues. The title of the featurette would suggest that it aims to explore the real Oscar Grant, but unfortunately, the inspiration for the film is only mentioned in passing. Instead, the featurette drags on as it explains the path that Fruitvale Station took from the idea stage to the big screen. If you really want to hear more from Coogler about the directing process, check it out, but I found it tiresome.
The Q&A session is also a little tiresome, mostly because of the fact that the camera remains stationary, mostly pointed at the actors discussing the film instead of moving around their faces. The long length (over 27 minutes) doesn’t help to hold your attention. Though Fruitvale Station contains almost 50 minutes of special features material, the dullness of both featurettes nearly sent me to sleep.
Though its special features lack, and its audio and visual components are merely serviceable, Ryan Coogler has made a powerful, important film in Fruitvale Station. It’s a movie that, in documenting a true American tragedy, makes profound statements about life, love, death, racism and the nature of justice. Fruitvale Station deserves to be meditated upon and discussed by all people interested in fixing the sometimes-biased lens through which today’s society views African-American males.
A gripping and wholly devastating documentation of an American tragedy, the film boasts two breakout stars in leading man Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler.