Movies: "Fruitvale Station" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Fruitvale Station"
Movies: "Fruitvale Station"

Arriving on the heels of the George Zimmerman trial, this is a fact-based movie about another horrific incident: the fatal shooting of an unarmed, young black man by an Oakland, California transit cop.  It happened on the morning of New Year’s Day, 2009, and sparked protests and violence around the San Francisco area. 

Michael B. Jordan (who played Wallace in “The Wire”) is Oscar Grant, a 22-year old with a loving girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and a cherubic daughter, Tatiana (7-year old Ariana Neal).  But Oscar is no saint.  When we first encounter him, Sophina is furious over an affair he’s had with another woman.  He’s just lost his job at a supermarket for chronic lateness, and (speaking of chronic) he’s got an ounce of marijuana to peddle.


The entire movie chronicles the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life, taking him on a journey through Oakland, the poorer relative of San Francisco and Berkeley, and through a series of small, everyday events, all leading up to that fateful ride with Sophina and his posse on the BART train on New Year’s morning.  Race is not a big factor in all these happenings, but is a constant undercurrent of the movie’s story arc.  It's just another day in his life, but there is a poignancy to all of it.


This day also happens to be the birthday of Oscar’s mother (the great Octavia Spencer of “The Help,” who co-produced the movie), so Oscar goes to the supermarket where he used to work to pick up some seafood and beg for his job back.  He meets a drug partner at the seashore, but dumps his dope in the ocean beforehand, claiming to have sold it to someone else (we find out why when we see a flashback of Oscar’s earlier sojourn in San Quentin).  And he and his little family join with other relatives to celebrate his mom’s birthday with crab gumbo and carrot cake.


When Oscar leaves his daughter to go to the New Year’s festivities, she tells him she’s scared because she keeps hearing gunshots.  The drama at the Fruitvale station is also presaged by numerous images of BART trains running alongside Oscar’s car as he moves around Oakland. 


The action unfolds with a minimum of drama, but with great attention to detail, like the best documentary we’ve ever seen.  Writer/director Ryan Coogler (who was assisted in this, his first feature film, by Forest Whitaker) hardly uses any music, except for rap tunes on Oscar’s car radio, and makes great use of steadicam technology to track his leading man through his last day.  The cinematography is by Rachel Morrison (“The Hills”) and it is spot-on.


As for the deadly shooting, the movie starts with actual smartphone footage of the real event, and concludes with the subway brawl that led up to it and the efforts to save Oscar’s life afterwards.  I was profoundly moved by all of it.  It is not an easy movie to watch, but it is more than worth it.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” another early feature by a brilliant young director, and the powerful story it delivered.  

“Fruitvale Station” is rated R for violence, language and drug use.  It is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  If you love movies, don’t miss this one.


I give it an A.