Review: Fruitvale Station


Fruitvale Station Still PhotoWith the advent of video technology that is now so commonplace in cell phones, anyone can document an event and share footage on the Internet or even to a media outlet as a citizen reporter. This ability often brings police incidents that may be a blip across the police blotter into the public eye, fueling public reaction.

Such was the case in the first hours of 2009, when New Year's Eve revelers were returning from the Embarcadero in San Francisco to their homes in the East Bay. After a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train, several passengers, including 22-year-old Oscar Grant, were detained on the platform of the Fruitvale Station by BART police. Other passengers who witnessed the incident used their phones to film the interaction between police officers and the detainees, later testifying in court that they did so because they believed BART officers "were acting too aggressively" toward Grant and his companions.

As tensions rose with shouts from both the detainees and train passengers, more officers arrived on the scene. During the chaos, BART officer Johannes Mehserle attempted to use his Taser on Grant but drew his gun instead. Grant was shot through the back; the bullet ricocheted off the concrete and punctured his lung. Grant left behind a four-year-old daughter when he died the following morning. His death and the ruling of involuntary manslaughter in Mehserle's trial fueled protests in the Bay Area and heated debate across the nation about race and the use of force by police.

The story that couldn't be told by citizen reporters or the media is that of Grant himself and his family, but director Ryan Coogler has resolved that through his feature-length directorial debut, Fruitvale Station. This dramatization of the preceding day in the life of Grant humanizes the young man who had struggled with surviving in Oakland, spent time in jail for drug charges, and had difficulty keeping a job. The film has already won awards, including the Un Certain Regard - Avenir Prize and the Sundance Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury Awards for Best Drama, and is likely destined for several Academy Award nominations.

One of those nominations I expect will be for lead actor Michael B. Jordan who effectively portrays Grant as a young man conflicted and not always on his best behavior. However, his love for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) as well as the guidance of his strong-willed mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) has him desiring to turn his life around.

The handheld camera work by Fruitvale Station cinematographer Rachel Morrison lends a cinema verite style to the film as we observe Grant move through his day and through the homes of his loved ones. An endearing scene in his grandmother's kitchen was so well-done that I felt that I was there personally -- awaiting my turn for service at Grandma Bonnie's gumbo pot.

The casting and performances in Fruitvale Station are notable, especially for lead actor Jordan as well as Academy award-winner Spencer in a formidable supporting role as the mother torn between her love for her son and frustration with his criminal activities. The dramatization of brief interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds seems a bit token at times, but the talented cast as well as the direction lend to the realism. This includes random encounters with grocery shopper and later eyewitness Katie, bolstered by the naturalism brought to a bit part by talented actress Ahna O'Reilly.

What I found most compelling about Fruitvale Station is the characterization of the individuals as well as the families and friends that surround them. The interaction between Jordan and Neal is phenomenal, and a final dialogue just hours before Grant's death had me in tears knowing the outcome.

Fruitvale Station opens with the actual footage caught by eyewitnesses at the scene, which I expected to lessen the impact of the final scene, but Coogler effectively builds the tension of the day throughout the film in well-paced measures. In light of recent events that have been compared to Grant's story, I highly recommend seeing this film to experience the humanization of the victims so often confined to passing headlines.