When a video camera became a standard feature on mobile phones, the world suddenly got a lot smaller. While everyday occurrences once relied on eyewitnesses and speculation, now anyone could capture anything as it happened and, with the click of a button, upload it to the internet where it can be seen by anyone. And hidden amongst people falling in unfortunate ways and cats being cute, occasionally comes a shocking moment of violence or brutality that horrifies and incites the public. This is precisely what happened when a grainy video was uploaded in 2008 of a young black man, Oscar Grant III, being shot by police at Fruitvale BART Station in America. Taking this video as its starting point, one that sparked controversy and riots across the U.S., first-time writer and director Ryan Coogler has crafted a devastating debut with 'Fruitvale Station', which explores Oscar's last day, culminating in the moment that shook his community and country to its core.
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) lives with his girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz) and his young daughter. He's recently lost his job, but tries to keep this from Sophia, determined to fix the problem himself. We follow Oscar through the last day of his life, preparing a birthday dinner for his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). We also flash back to moments in Oscar's past and his time spent in prison. As the day draws to a close, and Oscar and Sophia prepare to go out to watch the New Year's fireworks that night, all the pieces begin to fall into place for the tragedy that will end Oscar's life.
Coogler doesn't waste any time establishing what his film is dealing with, beginning the film with the infamous footage. This decision is a bold one and works immensely in the film's favour. 'Fruitvale Station' is a carefully crafted, meditative wander through Oscar's day, but the memory of the footage ramps up the tension of the film with every minute that passes. We know where this story will end, and the inevitability of it makes you sick to your stomach. 'Fruitvale Station' is a tremendous achievement, a stunning debut of a clever and uncompromising young director with something very important to say. While there are many social politics at play in the film, especially race and social discrimination, Coogler places that as subtext to an intricate character study. His focus is on Oscar, so that rather than making its politics obvious, it works as texture we can experience through the characters. There's a delicacy and intimacy to the film, a refusal to lay down judgement on anyone, including the officers who end Oscar's life. There's a tender humour to the film, especially in Oscar's interactions with Sophia and Wanda. Once the sun goes down, the rhythm of the film takes a new and frightening gear change, and the fluid, easy nature of the film becomes staccato and direct. So much of the film rests on that sudden moment of violence, which it executes with cold power, but the real magic of the film is in everything that leads to it. Coogler makes us feel for Oscar, become familiar with him. The death of a man is harder to accept once you see him playing with his daughter or mucking around with his mates. Oscar isn't presented as a hero or a villain, but simply an ordinary guy who suffers for no reason, and it is to Coogler's immense credit that he makes sure the craft steps out of the way and lets the film show us that.
Michael B. Jordan carries the weight of both the film and the man without breaking a sweat.
More than anything, what makes this achievable is the performance from Michael B. Jordan, who carries the weight of both the film and the man without breaking a sweat. This is the kind of performance that makes a career, and the delicacy and detail he employs to bring Oscar back to life is breathtaking. There's nothing more thrilling than watching an accomplished actor command a screen and a character with immense ease. There is no doubt that a great actor has stepped up with Jordan's performance. Melonie Diaz is also terrific as Sophia, navigating the tricky path from tired but loving partner to devastated widow and suddenly single parent. And Octavia Spencer is a true force as Wanda, a powerful mother bursting with love for her son but unafraid to be honest and harsh with him. The film is bolstered by a carefree youthful energy, populated with young people who still believe the world is theirs to take, and Wanda provides a much-needed solidity and experience to it, especially when the youthful world comes crashing down.
Unfortunately, the film makes only one major misstep in its final minute. The final shot of the film itself is perfect and harrowing, but is followed by photos of the real Oscar and footage of a remembrance ceremony at the station attended by his daughter. It's clear the intended effect is to humanise the story further, but in an odd way, it's a jarring conclusion that doesn't sit well. We the audience haven't fallen in love with Oscar as presented in these pictures, we've fallen in love with him as created by Jordan, and it all seems a bit too unnecessary; taking it one step too far to make us feel more emotional about his death. The film itself is so powerful and so affecting, that this last coda feels a little cheap and obvious. It's only a small flaw, but for a film as accomplished and affecting as this one, it has that awful habit of sticking out.
'Fruitvale Station' does more than herald the emerging talents of a young director and his star. It's a powerful portrait of a man, his family, his friends and his community, and how all these things converge on a single moment of violence that go beyond his small part of the world. This is beautifully stripped back, tender piece of cinema, and one that leaves you emotionally drained and immensely moved. Films this great - and this important - are very rare indeed.