Monday, March 24, 2014

Fruitvale Station

Directed by Ryan Coogler.
2013. Rated R, 85 minutes. 
Melonie Diaz 
Ahna O'Reilly 
Kevin Durand 
Ariana Neal 
Chad Michael Murray

During the first few hours of New Years' Day, 2009, 22 year old Oscar Grant (Jordan) was shot and killed by a police officer in the middle of a crowded train station. Of course, people captured the incident on their cell phones. Don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything. This is where the movie starts and it is based on a true story. From that opening, we then recount Oscar's final day. We find out quickly that he lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) and their daughter Tatianna (Neal). Things aren't going according to plan. He tries to rectify the situation while not letting his family or anyone else know the struggles he's going through. This is in addition to the rough stretch of water he and Sophina are currently sailing together because of his infidelity. Walking a mile in Oscar's shoes ensues.

As portrayed by Jordan, Oscar is a guy that immediately pulls you in. The draw is that he feels like a flesh and blood human being, not a movie character. He's generally a nice guy who has made some bad mistakes. We see him efforting to change his ways and his luck. This is no easy task. Doing things the way he's done them before will provide at least a temporary refuge from some of his troubles. The key word is temporary. Besides, he can no longer stand the effects of his choices on those he loves. Given that last bit of info, it's no surprise he's a doting father, as well. Like many of us dads, his little girl has him wrapped around her finger and there is no place he'd rather be than with her. He has fun with her every chance he gets. On top of all this, it's his own mother's birthday (Spencer) and he wants to make it a special day for her, too.

Just those things we see on the surface make Oscar a remarkably well-rounded character. What viewers may not realize is how brilliant it is to make him such. Let's go back to the beginning, or actually, to the end. This is a movie about a young black man killed by a white cop. In many films, whether based on fact or fiction, similarly doomed protagonists are given halos and wings as they walk the Earth. Their shortcomings are generally side effects of their greatness. Oscar is no hero. He is just dude trying to support his family. This endears him to us. He's been in jail and is comtemplating whether or not he should continue to sell weed. We don't necessarily like these things, but given what else we know of him, he's hardly some super-evil boogeyman drug dealer who would make us quiver in his presence. Just as important is the fact that all of his issues are his own. Neither he nor the movie tries to lay blame for his problems any further than his own feet. This is important to ensure that we are squarely in his corner. He is a man standing at the crossroads trying to decide on a path. We're entirely willing to stare at the options with him.

Something else that has us in Oscar's corner are the people in his life. Despite whatever he's put them through, it's obvious they love him. They want desperately for him to do well. More than that, they enjoy his company. They like having him around. To the movie's credit, these other people are also well represented. As Sophina, Melonie Diaz gives a completely natural performance. When she shifts gears in how she addresses Oscar, we understand. It feels like a conversation we may have had with our upset significant other. She raises her voice in anger, changes her tone in confusion, and brings it down a few octaves to show concern. Her facial expressions all work, too. On the other hand, the looks she gives Oscar have nothing on the contortions Octavia Spencer does with her face as Oscar's mom. Every one of them conveys much more than the words she speaks. As good as she was in her Academy Award winning performance from The Help, it was a role that lapsed into caricature. There are no such issues, here. For my money, this is her better work.

The most unfortunate aspect of Fruitvale Station, aside from Oscar's death, is that it tackles a still relevant topic. At the very least, what happens to Oscar is an abuse of power and a gross over-reaction to a situation that could have been handled a lot better. At worse, and certainly not out of the question it's an outright act of racism. Even if the officer who pulled the trigger would not normally be considered a racist in his day-to-day dealings with people of color, what he does is quite possibly a reaction to fear stirred by the cumulative effect of a few centuries' worth of stereotypes rushing to mind in the heat of the moment. If he is a racist, well, that doesn't need any of my dime-store analysis. For that officer, there are no right answers. The other cops present may not find much good in their own actions, either. Instead of diffusing it, they exacerbated the situation, creating an unmanageable frenzy. Something bad was bound to happen.


  1. Great review of one of my favorite films of 2013. I appreciated everything about this film, and love what you said about Spencer's work. I was not a fan of The Help (much in part for reasons you listed), and thought her role here was her finest acting achievement yet.

    1. Also one of my faves of '13. Agreed, this is Spencer's best performance to date, much more mature and restrained than the won that earned her Oscar gold. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Thanks for sharing this review again on Twitter. I wish it would've gotten more awards attention because Michael B. Jordan was fantastic and it's still such an important story. I have a soft spot for Melonie Diaz too. She's great.