The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin has turned Ryan Coogler’s extraordinary debut feature and Sundance darling, Fruitvale Station, into the must see movie of the moment. But even without this eerie coincidence, Fruitvale Station – about the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of a white BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009 – stands on its own as a remarkable piece of emotional filmmaking. Taking tips from Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Coogler succeeds in making a powerful political statement by ignoring the politics of the situation all-together. While a stirring social commentary about race relations in America boils underneath the surface, Coogler is less concerned with the civics of the situation and more focused on the heart of it. This isn’t a political story. It’s a human one.
After opening the film with real recorded cell-phone footage of the tragic event (the choreography of which is replicated in the film’s climax, giving that scene the intensity of a pulse-pounding thriller since you already know how it moves), Coogler recounts the final 24 hours in Grant’s life in what is one of the most fascinating portrayal’s of a man ever put on screen. Though anyone buying a ticket knows the film’s ending, showing actual footage of the event first strips your guard down instantly and gives every second of the rest of the movie – every line of dialogue, every look a character gives, every choice a character makes, every text message a character sends, every embrace a character shares, etc. – an added layer of dramatic irony and bone-chilling emotion. Aside from the climax, the film is made up of entirely simple moments that we hardly give much attention to in our own lives – dropping someone at work, going to the market, getting gas – but here each moment is one second closer to a tragic ending and Coogler utilizes each scene to breakdown who Oscar Grant really was.
Luckily, Coogler’s vision is made all the more powerful thanks to an astonishing performance from lead Michael B. Jordan, so excellent on TV’s The Wire and Friday Night Lights and the best part of last year’s Chronicle. Not since Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a performance been so definitively “star-is-born”. Many critics have compared Jordan to a young Denzel Washington and what worthy and excellent praise that is; with equal amounts of haughtiness and vulnerability, Jordan effortlessly plays two sides of the same coin: a tough-as-nails ex convict and a loving, care-giving family man.
Over the course of the film, Jordon quietly shows the cracks in Grant’s intimidating exterior and slowly exposes all the shades of the 22-year-old’s personality – his cocky masculinity and deep devotion in his relationship with girlfriend Sophia (an excellent Melanie Diaz, recalling the feisty spirit of a young, Do The Right Thing-era Rosie Perez), his tender love for his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), his kindness for helping strangers at the market, his sense of responsibility in finding a job, his regret of selling weed, his warmth and affection for his mother (Octavia Spencer) while getting together her birthday dinner, his wisecracking humor in picking a card out on behalf of his sister, etc. Even when the film makes dramatic embellishments – a mid-day encounter with a dog is too-good-to-be-true foreshadowing – Jordan makes you feel every moment. By the time Grant is facing off against BART police officers, you want to get up out of your chair and yell in a fit of anger not because Grant is black and the officer is white, but because Grant is human, a person, unlike you and me, with baggage and a fighting chance at a better tomorrow. Thanks to Jordan, Grant is a fully humanized character and not just a symbol for racial intolerance; it’s a damn brilliant performance and one that demands Oscar attention.
Unsurprisingly, Oscar-winner Spencer is just as unshakeable. During her awards-clean up as the feisty Minny Jackson in The Help, I often claimed Spencer had some of the best eyes in the business and here she proves just that. All it takes is one look from those big powerhouses to make your heart swell, and whether she’s trying to keep it together while awaiting the news of her son’s fate or going toe-to-toe with Jordon in a tour-de-force flashback, Spencer is always an emotional epicenter of any scene. And yet, even more so than her performance, Spencer has to be lauded for bringing this movie to life. After winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Spencer could have easily stepped into the lead role of some prestigious drama; instead, she used her new pull to produce Fruitvale Station and get this resonant story funded, made, and sent to Sundance earlier this year. How remarkable is that? Here is an actress less concerned about her “post-Oscar performance” and more with breathing life into passionate stories that must be told. Luckily, Spencer’s “post-Oscar performance” as Grant’s mother is another winner. But that’s an added bonus.
It speaks volumes to Fruitvale Station’s power that once the film cut to black not a single audience member in my screening moved an inch or spoke a word throughout the entirety of the credits. To say you’ll be emotionally gutted come the conclusion is an understatement. This is one of the year’s best films – one that inspires you to be a better person, to make better choices, to give each moment of your life purpose and a deeper sense of love and gratitude. Who needs politics when the vibrancy of the human spirit speaks for itself?
Now that’s the power of the movies.
Review by Zack Sharf