Ryan Coogler’s very affecting debut film, Fruitvale Station, has been the talk of the town since it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival before going on to screen to similar acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. Riding a lot of buzz, it is set to open in Australian cinemas on November 7. This anticipated documentary-esque dramatization of the devastating true events that took place in Hayward on the 31st December 2008 and at Fruitvale Station in the early hours of January 1st 2009 is sure to provoke some pretty strong emotions.
Fruitvale Station aligns the audience with Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old African American living in Hayward, California, over the course of a single day – New Year’s Eve, the day of his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, and the day he decides to turn over a new leaf, re-commit to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), be a better father to his daughter Tatiana (Adriana Neal), and leave behind a life of crime. Despite his best intentions, he comes to the realization that these changes aren’t going to be easy. The story culminates at Fruitvale Station, following Oscar and Sophina’s night out celebrating New Year’s Eve, where Oscar and some of his friends are placed under arrest by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Officers following an altercation.
Many viewers will know how this story ends already, but Coogler manages to ensure that an ominous suspense presides over the events. Coogler keeps everything low-key, tracking Oscar over the course of a regular day in Super 16mm format and an observatory fashion as he cruises around, drops his daughter off at school, picks up crabs for his mother’s birthday dinner, makes plans on how to celebrate the dawn of 2009 and has several serious discussions with his girlfriend. Coogler establishes the relationships with grace and ease, never interested in forcing an agenda, but to attach us to this young man, establish the importance of family, social union and the fact that everyone has something to live for. Oscar was only just beginning to realize what it was he cherished the most, but what happens is completely unacceptable no matter who was involved.
On a couple of occasions he is guilty of taking the foreshadowing a bit far and lathering up the audience’s emotions – the only criticism I have with the film - but this is forgivable because Oscar is such a genuine character, and how much the event affects is not wholly manipulated by the way our protagonist is portrayed. There is an undercurrent of tension, which makes every pleasant development a bittersweet one. This all hits a new level in the brilliant final act, a gut-wrenchingly authentic recreation and a high point of recent dramatic cinema.
Anger, fear and distress are just some of the feelings that are difficult to hold in during the devastating climax, a frightening series of events that snowball from a violent altercation to a case of unacceptable racial profiling and serious abuse of authority and power. Understandably, the events recreated in this film shook the Bay Area.
Having followed Oscar for the duration of the day, we find him an endearing young man, but certainly a flawed one. He has charm and he clearly loves his closest family, but he is still outrunning his wayward past, including a stint in prison. He has made some bad decisions of late – being dishonest, blaming others for his situation, and being a consistently unreliable employee that has since cost him his job at the supermarket – but ultimately he’s just a regular kid trying to make it like everybody else.
An early visit to this supermarket introduces us to some recurring characters, and most importantly reveals that Oscar has a potentially violent temper, a rage that he is struggling to keep under control. He pleads for his job back, grabbing his boss in a state of desperation. We see embarrassment and shame fall across his face - another failure he has to explain to his mother and girlfriend. The family sequences are all wonderful. Oscar’s interactions with his mother and daughter make his suppressed aggression, and efforts to change, even more telling.
Oscar is at a crossroads, forced to make some tough decisions over the course of the day. He watches a dog die in his arms following a hit and run; metaphoric of the fragility of life, and how it can pass in the blink of an eye as a result of circumstance and negligence. What happens to Oscar simply shouldn’t happen to anyone. The cause is the result of his past catching up with him, and a society in disarray.
Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle) delivers a powerhouse performance; displaying incredible range and crafting a character we sympathise with, care for, and won’t soon forget. This is ultimately where Fruitvale Station succeeds – in raising awareness of the issues plaguing America by telling a gripping personal story. Also fantastic in supporting roles are Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.