Fruitvale Station is movie that I meant to see when it played in the theaters earlier this year, but ended up not finding the time. Luckily, word of mouth kept it on my radar, so I just saw it on DVD. All I knew before was that it was about a young African-American named Oscar Grant who was shot by San Francisco Bay Area transit police a few years ago. And so I expected it to be melodramatic or maybe even sensationalistic. I was not prepared for the beautifully nuanced, subtle and resonant work that it is.
Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, 22 years old and living in Hayward, California, near Oakland. The actor brings a special easy-going charm to the role: Oscar is confident, friendly, and he adores his four-year-old daughter. His live-in girlfriend Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, is very protective of their child, and harshly critical of Oscar’s irresponsible habits. For this is not the portrait of a saint, but of a flawed young man. We see in a flashback that he has done time in prison for drug dealing (about one in three black men have been incarcerated at some point in their lives), and we learn that he’s been fired from his job at a grocery store for being late, and he still does an occasional pot deal to make ends meet.
Except for the one flashback, the movie covers just one day in his life, New Year’s Eve 2008, right up to the point that he gets killed. This is not a spoiler, because we see actual cell phone footage of the shooting at the beginning of the film, and one of the really moving aspects of the picture is the awful knowing what’s going to happen as contrasted with this bittersweet day in the life of a young man.
It also happens to be his mom’s birthday—much of the story involves him preparing for the party. Octavia Spencer plays the mother, and she’s the other standout performance here, concerned and sometimes gruffly critical, but also very loving.
The film is written and directed by a relative newcomer named Ryan Coogler. It’s his first full-length film, and he demonstrates a remarkably delicate touch, especially evoking relaxed, natural work from the actors. All the things that resonate in the story—the chronic occurrence of police violence against young black men, the underlying fear and tension of living and trying to get by within white supremacy—is not treated polemically here. The feelings are evoked through the simple depiction of everyday life, with its joys, angers, mistakes, and hopes. Fruitvale Station is the name of the train stop where Oscar Grant was killed for no reason. The rage and the sadness that occur have a tinge of fatefulness, since what has happened can’t be reversed, but the film also lets us glimpse the inner freedom that can create a better future for us if we stay aware and take action.