Film Friday: Ryan Coogler's 'Fruitvale Station' with Michael B. Jordan

By Daniel S Levine,

So much can happen in a single, 24-hour period. For some, it's as simple as having breakfast, going to work, coming home, having dinner and going to bed. Occasionally, there will be something to shake that up. Tragedy can strike. And that's exactly what happened to Oscar Grant and his family between New Year's Eve 2008 and New Year's Day 2009. That day started out like any other, but when he and his friends were on their way back from partying, he was shot by a BART officer at Fruitvale Station. He later died at the hospital.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler chose the story of Oscar Grant for his first feature film, simply titled Fruitvale Station. He told his audience the end of the story at the beginning, showing the grainy cell phone footage of Oscar's shooting that millions saw in 2009. It's a shocking opening, but grounds the film in reality at that very moment. Sure, what will follow is a stylized way of telling Oscar's story in a mere 80 minutes, but Coogler drives the point that these are real people. There was an Oscar Grant and he might not have been a perfect man, but he had the potential to be a great person before his life was cut short.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American Bay Area man who just lost his job and lives with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). The two also share a young daughter and the only money coming in is from Sophina's job. The audience learns all these facts as the film develops. We see Oscar try to get that job back at the supermarket and then he contemplates selling drugs again, just to pay the rent. Coogler also introduces us to Oscar's family, including his mother Wanda Johnson (Octavia Spencer) as they prepare their New Year's dinner.

One of the great moves by Coogler in the film is to give small, essential pieces of Oscar's past to create a more detailed character. It allows him to make the most of his time, while not getting bogged down in exposition. Oscar's time in prison is shown at the same time Oscar is reminding himself about that experience. The point isn't to beat the fact that Oscar was not a perfect man, but to give his actions on the last day of his life purpose. There's a reason why he wants to keep his relationship strong with Sophina, be there for his daughter and spend time with his family. He didn't know it was going to be the last day of his life, he just knew that he had lost time to make up for.

Jordan really gave one of 2013's best performances here, understanding Coogler's effort to portray Oscar as a regular human being. If you play him up like a saint, you're clearly lying to the audience, but if you come to grips with imperfections and can still prove that what happened to Oscar was wrong, then Coogle succeeds. He can only do that if Jordan can follow through with that task, and he does so effortlessly. The scene where Jordan almost lets rage take over at the supermarket is wonderfully acted and yet he still pulls off the loving son moments with Octavia Spencer.

Coogler did luck out with having the best of the best at his disposal, though. Producer Forest Whittaker was impressed with his work at school and when Whittaker's Significant Productions agreed to finance, Coogler could suddenly cast actors like Jordan and Spencer. He really took full advantage of the talent he had, creating an incredible debut feature. Coogler is only 27, yet it's clear that he has an ability to present a character study economically (did I mention that this is only 80 minutes?), without sacrificing anything.

On Home Video: Fruitvale Station was released on DVD and Blu-ray this week, a year after the film's successful screening at Sundance. Anchor Bay's release has just two 30—minute features, but both are more interesting than typical featurettes for new releases. “The Story of Oscar Grant” is an above average behind-the-scenes look at Coogler's desire to bring this story to the screen and how it came together. The other is a Q&A with the crew from a 2013 festival screening. Thankfully, both are included on the DVD as well.

Fruitvale Station is a surprisingly good movie that has gotten lost in the shuffle as the awards season developed this year. But it's clear that Coogler is a young filmmaker to watch and Jordan's performance has certainly brought him to the attention of Hollywood. This is a film meant to be seen more than once and the Blu-ray release is fantastic.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

image: The Weinstein Company

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