Writer/director Ryan Coogler has made one of the year’s best films with his bold feature-directing debut, Fruitvale Station. It tells the true story of Oscar Grant, the man shot to death by a cop on New Year’s Eve 2008, while riding the BART with his girlfriend and mother of his child.
If you’ve seen the mobile videos taken of Grant pleading with officers for order as he and his friends were being brutalized in the BART station, you’ve seen the events that transpired. As one cop turned him onto his stomach and put his knee onto Grant’s neck, another inexplicably took out his gun and shot Grant once, fatally, through his back.
The officer claimed he was just trying to taze Grant. Mistake or not, it doesn’t matter. That officer, without reason, took Grant’s life while a throng of BART riders watched and filmed in horror.
Coogler could’ve made a justifiably angry film, screaming in the face of a justice system that cost this young man his life and his daughter a father. What he has made is something far more important, effective and nuanced.
He has made a movie that fleshes out Grant so that he’s more than those few minutes captured on frantic people’s phones. It’s a movie that concentrates on the life taken, the people he loved, and the lives that were to be lived together that were taken away. It’s a crushing, heartbreaking viewing experience anchored by a brilliant performance from Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Grant.
The film starts with the infamous phone footage of Grant’s death, and then flashes back to Grant and his girlfriend Sophina (the excellent Melonie Diaz) having a fight about Oscar’s alleged infidelity. He’s a man on a stumbling recovery from a prison stay, trying to keep his job, raise his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and make his mother Wanda (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) proud.
Wanda suggests Oscar and Melonie take BART on New Year’s Eve to celebrate safely, and Wanda realizes this as she says goodbye to her son’s corpse just a few hours after celebrating her birthday with him. Spencer makes this a scene you will not soon forget.
While the film does start with the footage of Grant’s death, Coogler and Jordan recreate the tragedy at the end of the movie. They portray Grant the way he appeared in those cellular phone videos: just a guy caught up in an unfortunate situation, trying to be reasonable with the police in order to get himself and his friends home for the new year.
By the time this plays out, we already know what happened, making every second of the sequence as unbearable as it should be. The cop who shot Grant is already walking free after serving a one-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Coogler pulls no punches in depicting the abhorrent behavior of those cops.
Jordan delivers a graceful, star-making performance, the type of work that will put him on a lot of good directors’ radars. As portrayed by Jordan, Grant has his problems, including a temper that sometimes gets him into trouble. A jail scene where Wanda comes to visit Grant, which ends with him pleading to his mother while guards swarm him, is one of the film’s most memorable.
Coogler and Jordan plan to work together again on Creed, a Rocky spin-off that sees the grandson of Rocky Balboa’s former opponent looking to Balboa for guidance in his boxing career. Stallone has shown interest in the project, and it looks to be a go. It sounds like fun.
As for Fruitvale Station, I expect this movie will get some notices come awards season. It’s the kind of movie that makes a mark on you, an important film about something that should’ve never happened, and a movie everyone should see.