Young director Ryan Coogler made an interesting choice when it came to the first scene in Fruitvale Station, his first feature film which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
The film surrounds the last day of Oscar Grant, a man who was fatally shot at a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station by BART police after coming home from San Francisco early New Year’s Day in 2009. The shooting took center stage in Bay Area news as many BART passengers took cell phone video of the incident.
The interesting choice Coogler made was to show blurred cell phone video from the incident in the first scene, which starts the story from the end. It lets the viewer know that something bad is bound to happen. The movie isn’t just about the shooting and Grant’s death. It’s also about the choices everyone involved made that day before it happened. It sets a ton of anticipation and anxiousness.
While this wasn’t the actual footage Coogler used, here’s one person’s cell phone footage of what happened that fateful night:
Grant, his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz), and his friends leave Fruitvale station in Oakland to San Francisco to ring in the new year. Diaz’s Sophina is tough on the outside, but the toughness masks a passionate mom who cares about her family deeply. BART plays a central theme in the movie both because it’s where his unfortunate end takes place and because it’s the cause of a conundrum – the choice to take BART is the responsible one, especially for those out drinking. But it ended up being a fateful decision for Grant.
(If you’ve read Popblerd movie reviews before, you’ll notice that Martin and Mike B. are the writers who do most of the movie reviewing. The reason I wanted to write about Fruitvale Station is because of its Bay Area ties. When they arrive in San Francisco, they get off at the Montgomery station, which is one I’ve stopped at over 200 times in my life. It’s also just a few blocks away from where I watched the movie.
The movie uses some Bay Area-specific lingo like “hella”, though I wouldn’t expect people in the Bay Area to call San Francisco, “Frisco” like Grant calls it in the movie. At least they didn’t call it “San Fran”. I also recognized Lucena Herrera who is friends with a few people I know. She is a local media personality who also was a Raiderette at the same time as one of my best friends.)
Jordan’s portrayal of Grant makes it hard not to like him. He’s a thoughtful father; one who realizes how his decisions affect his daughter, but sometimes, after the fact. He’s charming yet constantly conflicted about how he’s living his life. There’s an all too predictable scene that foreshadows what’s to come for Grant, but also paints his confusion perfectly. After failing to get a job back that he once held at a market, he contemplates selling drugs to help with rent. At a gas station, he sees a dog and engages with it playfully before pumping gas. The dog runs into the street, is hit, and the driver speeds away. He cares for it, yet can’t fathom how someone could drive away after hitting the animal, leaving it to die. It would soon be his end.
(Jordan may be the one person who could play Tupac Shakur if a movie was ever made about his life. His persona is that powerful on screen, which would be necessary to play that role. I kept thinking that throughout the film. I’m not sure if I tied Grant’s character to Shakur, or that Jordan’s performance after being shot is how I envisioned Shakur passing after he was shot.)
Octavia Spencer, fresh off her Academy Award winning performance for The Help plays Grant’s mother. While watching the film, I thought her character was too modest. I expected her character to have more energy. But after reflecting on it, I was reminded of a flashback scene in which she visits her son in prison that helped me come to the conclusion that she played it the right way. I won’t spoil the scene, but much like the ending of the film, there’s a certain impending doom feeling to everything. I didn’t feel like she knocked the character out of the park, but I felt like my original expectation would’ve been way off base.
Grant’s daughter Tatiana is played carefully by Ariana Neal. Her eyes tell the story of a young girl who is happy when her father is around and nervous when he’s not. The real Tatiana is now eight years old. Former James Franco love Ahna O’Reilly plays Katie, a supporting character who crosses paths with Grant. I’d be surprised to hear that Katie was a real person and felt like she was placed there to help move the narrative.
Coogler’s message is strong. The film moves along at a rapid pace, feeling much quicker than its 84 minutes. In fact, I would’ve been fine with 20 minutes of more story and will be interested to hear if there’s more of the film on the Blu ray release. One of Coogler’s tricks is to hold certain shots longer than the viewer is comfortable with, but I think it’s to continue to make the viewer on edge as to anticipate the final act.
Go see the film to learn about Grant and the unfortunate way that he passed away. You’ll come away feeling that each day is valuable. And you’ll walk away thinking that Michael B. Jordan is well on his way to super stardom.
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