Fruitvale Station – Review ★★★★

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‘Fruitvale Station’ is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was shot and killed by police at the Oakland, California, Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit Station. The film details Grant’s final hours as he perseveres through the struggles and triumphs of an ordinary day.

Here are the facts: on the evening of December 31, 2008, Oscar Grant celebrated his mother’s birthday with his four-year-old daughter, girlfriend, and family. Later that night he took a train into San Francisco to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his girlfriend and friends. On the way back he got into a fight and was then removed from the train by BART police. After arguing with officers he was forced onto his stomach and was then shot in the back by officer Johannes Mehserle. He died hours later. Mehserle was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after claiming that he thought he had grabbed and fired his Taser, not his handgun. He served 11 months of a two-year sentence. To this day, Oscar Grant’s misfortune remains a relevant tragedy in the context of America’s current social climate.

Fruitvale Station is an absolutely extraordinary movie that exemplifies the true ambitions of independent filmmaking. In his feature directorial debut, Ryan Coogler creates a framework in which we see the person behind the tragedy – a man attempting to right the wrongs he has committed in his life in order to be a better father, boyfriend, and son. At only 27 years old, it is apparent that Coogler will have a bright future as an independent filmmaker.

Michael B. Jordan, who is recognized for his roles in critically acclaimed television shows such as ‘The Wire’ and ‘Friday Night Lights,’ is captivating in his portrayal of Oscar Grant. Jordan subtly expresses the complexities of an individual most well known for his tragic end. He is both genuine and modest in his performance, never missing a beat even in the most demanding of moments. As Oscar’s mother Wanda, Octavia Spencer brilliantly captures the essence of a woman whose hope for her son’s future is only outweighed by her undying love for him. Melonie Diaz shines as Grant’s independent, yet fiercely supportive and patient girlfriend.

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Just as powerful as the performances in Fruitvale Station is Coogler’s style of filmmaking, which speaks genuinely to the character of Grant and the circumstances of his life.  The camera work is mainly handheld and there are numerous long takes, helping the audience to settle into the film’s deeply personal story. The production design is muted and well done, and the music is commanding but never over-powering. Though only 90 minutes, the film takes its time, lingering on certain shots and scenes until the moment is fully played out and collectively experienced.

Fruitvale Station is delicately tragic, resisting the urge to force the audience into a fury of anger and agitation, instead focusing on the fragile components of a young man’s life. It is clear that Coogler is a new director to keep an eye on and it will be interesting to see what new works he will produce in the future. I would suggest Fruitvale Station to anyone, particularly those who enjoy the subtleties of good filmmaking and the power of a heartbreaking story.

The film has been very well received, premiering at Sundance and winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, as well as receiving the ‘Un Certain Regard’ Future Prize at Cannes. It was released theatrically across the U.S. on July 26th and has already received Oscar buzz for next spring’s award season.

The UK release date has not yet been announced.

Julia Van Valkenburg has a BFA in Film and Video Production from the University of Arizona. She currently writes for JVV on American film, television and pop culture and resides in Tucson, Arizona.