“Fruitvale Station” is more than the dramatization of an obituary. It’s about empathy.
In recounting (and slightly fictionalizing) the final day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s life, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler has made a film that piles small daily gestures – and one final, heartbreakingly tragic one – into an inspiring reminder about basic human decency.
That may sound trite, but “Fruitvale Station” – already a hit on the festival circuit – resonates not just for its portrait of injustice, but because its argument for treating strangers kindly, decently, comes at a time when fear and presumption often trump simple kindness, and the public sphere is navigated in cellphone bubbles.
In a star-making performance, Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, the San Francisco Bay Area ex-convict and former drug dealer who, famously, was fatally shot by a transit police officer early on New Year’s morning, 2009. The moment is glimpsed in raw cellphone footage at the start of “Fruitvale Station,” before shifting back to the morning before and the start of Oscar’s last full day.
On its surface, it’s a regular day of errands. But all of the stops reflect Oscar’s struggle to balance his past, his unemployment and his family: girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer, also a producer of the film).
He’s hotheaded and imperfect, but he listens to his mom, helps strangers (like a supermarket shopper in need played by Ahna O’Reilly) and, in the surest sign that a dose of martyrdom has crept into the portrayal, tends to a dying dog. It’s a day, presumably like any other, of fraught improvisation for Oscar, a young black man trying his best in circumstances stacked against him.
Jordan, the talented young actor of “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Chronicle” – who’s in nearly every scene of the movie – puts the film on his shoulders in an unqualified display of leading-man charisma. It’s a naturalistic, hoodie-clad performance, with “bruh” warmly peppered throughout his speech. His proud posture is belied by friendly, intelligent eyes and an awe-shucks smile.
Coogler intimately captures Jordan’s performance with fluid camera movement while illustrating Oscar’s constant text messaging on the screen. The Oakland native’s passion for the story is evident as he transfers with sure-handedness from the sunny, day-in-a-life meandering to the frenzied action of the devastating nighttime finale. Though Coogler verges on ham-fistedness, he’s crafted a film not just heavy with racial truths, but one whose humanism reverberates.
For a movie about an unjust death, “Fruitvale Station” is bursting with the colorful, messy striving of life. The fullness of Jordan’s Oscar is as staggering as his end is appalling.