A touching and, tragically, still relevant tribute.
2009 was just a few hours old. Bay Area New Years revelers packed onto trains to go home. A 22-year-old man got involved in a scuffle. Transit officers took him and his friends off the train and lined them up on the nearest station platform. An incident spiraled into an accident when a young white cop shot and killed a young black man.
For the equally young, first-time director Ryan Coogler, Oscar’s story hit too close to home. “It took place in the Bay Area,” Coogler recounted to the Dig. “I was there. I was the same age. I saw the footage, and it sparked an emotional reaction in me. I wasn’t the only person affected, but people in the community responded differently. For me, filmmaking was my way to do something.”
Coogler continued, “I felt a lot of frustration during the trial. It was ignored that he was a person. They spilt him; in a way, he became sanctified on one side and dehumanized on the other, and he was this monster [for them]. Nobody was talking about his life.”
“So many young people die and it gets ignored, but his got glossed over in a different way.”
Bringing Oscar’s story to life with all its complexities meant that Coogler had to dig deep to find the man Oscar once was. “I met [the Grant family] initially through the attorney in charge of their case. I was on one side; they were on the other. I just talked to them about what I wanted to do as far as the film. They were quiet, apprehensive. I think it helped that I was from the same area and the same age.”
While the blessings of Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer helped send Coogler’s tribute into Sundance history (and the prize of a Weinstein-won bidding war), it was really Michael B. Jordan’s stirring and soulful performance as Grant himself that stands out. Coogler said of his leading man, “I wanted someone who had a stake in that story. Mike is what happens when god-given talent meets an incredible work ethic and a real team mentality. It’s one of those movies where the actor’s face is onscreen throughout the entire film, so it will live or die by his performance.”
While Fruitvale Station starts at the tragedy, it does not dwell there.
It tells the story of Oscar’s final day: getting ready for his mom’s birthday, picking up his girlfriend from work, and playing with his daughter. It’s exquisitely shot on Super 16, giving Coogler room to show off his craftsmanship while amplifying emotions with subdued tones and careful framing. It leaves you in awe of the look and story.
“This movie isn’t about bashing anything,” said Coogler. “It’s presented as an event. The film isn’t about the protests or the trial, it’s about this guy’s life and his relationships, and we’re with him on the day this happens.
I wanted it to be something that brought people together.”
[The release of Fruitvale Station and George Zimmerman’s acquittal occurring in the same week may be a coincidence, but the conditions surrounding them are not. Four years after Oscar Grant’s death, unarmed young black men are still being gunned down by law enforcement—self-styled or otherwise—and our legal system seems content to validate, even reward, paranoid racial profiling. Enough is enough. —Kris, Assoc. Film Editor]
FRUITVALE STATION | RATED R | IN SELECT THEATERS 7.26.13