Fruitvale Station Review
by Daniel Rester
Fruitvale Station very nearly accomplished doing something that not many films do, which is making me cry (it’s only ever happened during two films in my life). However, by the end of Station, I was close to tears and had a lump in my throat. Kudos to writer-director Ryan Coogler for almost achieving in doing such a thing, as it shows his skill in fashioning such a powerful true-life drama. And this is only his feature film debut. I have a feeling this filmmaker is going to go a long way.
Station revolves around Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), and tells the purportedly true story of his last day of being alive in Oakland, California, crossing paths with friends, family, and enemies on New Year’s Eve in 2008. Eventually, Grant was fatally shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, and died later that morning. Mehserle claims that he was reaching for his Taser, though he actually ended up firing a gunshot into the handcuffed Grant’s back. For the film, the names of the two officers involved with the death were changed, with Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray portraying them on screen.
While the outcome of the film is predetermined, Coogler doesn’t try to make Station into one big propaganda film. He instead shows interest in and applies focus to Grant’s life, with its various ups and downs. The writer-director really makes Grant wholly human, avoiding just using his situation at the Fruitvale BART Station for a soapbox. When all is said and done, Coogler lets the audience decide how to feel (politically) about what actually happened with the officers. There is no denying, though, that Coogler’s film stands as being both sad and important by its finish.
In exploring Grant’s final day of life, Coogler presents a variety of characters and situations. The 22-year-old Grant lived with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He is shown as loving them very much, though he has cheated on Sophina before and lost his job in the film. He also has a flaw in that he is a drug dealer and has been to jail. Station even includes a flashback scene of when Grant was in jail at the end of 2007 and received a visit from his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). On the day before his death, Grant is shown doing such things as helping people out in stores, deciding to stop selling large amounts of drugs, and spending time with family at his mom’s birthday party.
Coogler allows just the right amount of drama and comedy to blend together during the various scenes. He also lets everyone shine with personality, no matter how small the part. Diaz is impressive as Sophina, while Neal is adorable as Tatiana. Spencer also presents a strong will and caring eyes as Wanda. But when all is said and done, this is really young Jordan’s show. The actor expresses a real star quality here, perfectly expressing both the flaws and strengths of the character. His mix of charm and smiles, melancholy and thoughtful looks, and overall presence and intensity is just amazing.
The majority of everything that Coogler presents feels real, but a few small moments feel artificial and bring the movie down a bit. One scene involving a dog is an obvious metaphor and an application of foreshadowing. Another scene involving Grant leaving the “drug life” behind seems a bit exaggerated, too. And yet another scene that has Grant talking to a man about marriage feels a bit forced and schmaltzy. Such moments feel manipulative and unneeded, and they somewhat dirty an otherwise great film.
Station’s final twenty minutes are unforgettable and will likely leave many audience members frozen. The film is hard to watch on occasion, and may be a film that can only be watched once. Still, it is a must-see, and it announces Coogler and Jordan as two exceptional new artists.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).