Movies have the power to change people’s hearts and minds, because they give you the chance to experience life from another person’s perspective. Among the many examples of this: Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which led to the elimination of chain gangs; Sidney Poitier’s early films, which changed attitudes about race relations (The Defiant Ones, Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night – take your pick); or Tom Hanks giving a face to the AIDS crisis in Philadelphia. In light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island, I watched a movie from 2013 that I’d missed during its theatrical release – Fruitvale Station.
During the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot in the back while being restrained face-down by San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police on the platform at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. He died later that morning. The police had responded to reports of a fight on the train that was crowded with people returning from ringing in the New Year in San Francisco. They held the train in the station, so several passengers recorded what took place on their cell phones. That footage is what starts the film, though the screen goes black just before the fatal shot is heard.
The film then jumps back 24 hours to show Oscar’s last day. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is living with his girlfriend Sophina Mesa (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). The main focus of their day is preparing for the birthday party of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer) that will take place that night. While he hides it from others, Oscar is in a rough place. He’s recently lost his job at a market, and the rent is due in a couple of days. Oscar had made bad choices when he was still a teenager, which led to him being sent to jail. The day becomes a personal odyssey for him as he decides to make changes in his life that honor Sophina, who he loves, and Tatiana, whom his adores.
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler had access to the principles involved in the story and crafted an excellent film that presents Oscar as neither saint nor sinner, but as human with whom you can identify in spite of any cultural differences. Coogler took some liberties with the story for the sake of the movie, but they were minor changes or the events happened at another time. For instance, early on in the film Oscar is in the market where he use to work, getting supplies for his mother’s birthday dinner (which did actually take place on that day), when he sees a young woman having trouble at the meat counter. She wants to fry fish since that’s a meal her husband loves, but she’s never done it before and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Oscar calls his grandmother and puts the woman on the phone with her so his grannie can teach her how to fry fish. While it didn’t happen that day, Oscar did do that earlier when he worked at the market. Slate magazine did an article that breaks down the accuracy of the film, though of course that means the article does contain spoilers.
When the film gets to the climactic scene at the Fruitvale Station, Coogler is meticulous in recreating the incident. He obtained permission from BART to film the scene on the platform of the actual station, and he pulled dialogue for the scene from the cellphone footage. The footage has been posted on YouTube along with contemporary news reports about the incident. This was the first feature film made by Coogler, and it is a stunning achievement.
It helps that Michael B. Jordan gives a mesmerizing performance as Oscar. Jordan started acting when he was twelve, with early credits on shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” After extended roles on “All My Children,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Parenthood” Jordan had a break-out role in the sci-fi sleeper hit Chronicle. Several scenes in Fruitvale Station have little or no dialogue, but the emotions that play out of Jordan’s eyes speak volumes. He will be an actor to watch in the future, in the mode of Don Cheadle and Terrence Howard. Matching him is Octavia Spencer. She portrays Oscar’s mother Wanda as a clear-eyed realist who gives tough love when necessary. It makes the end of the movie all the more heartwrenching.
It’s become a bit hackneyed to say you can’t judge a man until you have walked in his shoes, but that doesn’t negate the truth of the words. Fruitvale Station slips Oscar Grant’s shoes onto your feet and laces them up tight, and you’ll still feel them there long after the movie is over.