FRUITVALE STATION, the feature debut of Writer/Director Ryan Coogler won both the audience and jury prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as well as an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. This emotionally astute, involving drama had me sitting up straight the entire time as it traces a day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). If you haven’t researched this film, I would highly suggest you know as little as possible. Although based on a true story, which is highlighted in its opening moments, the film has much more on its mind than its newsworthy details.
In interviews, Octavia Spencer, heartbreaking as Grant’s mother, has stated that it’s less a film about the black experience and more about the human experience. While true, I think there’s a bit of marketing strategy in her comments. Although it plays as a very universal redemption story, at its heart, for me, this is a stunning movie about racial perception. It’s how the black male is viewed by the rest of society, and the roles women play in navigating/appeasing that. There have been so many news stories or viral videos of an African American male in a rage and the societal responses to it often expose racism, stereotyping, or at best, a narrow frame of reference. FRUITVALE STATION takes you inside one such viral clip and reveals the man behind some hair-trigger actions captured on an iPHONE.
Jordan, who has been doing wonderful work as an actor (excellent in CHRONICLE), is alive and captivating here. Playing an essentially good man who is capable of making some bad decisions, he makes you feel every moment of his performance. You watch, almost helplessly, as his every move affects the next moment in his life. How he responds to his girlfriend’s (Melonie Diaz) accusations of infidelity, how he approaches a former boss, how he tries to stop dealing drugs, or how he deals with an injured dog all paint a vivid picture of a man struggling to find his way. His encounter with the dog, however, despite being moving, felt a little too much straight out of the SAVE THE CAT Screenwriting Handbook for me, and is the sole misstep in an otherwise fine film.
As Grant tries desperately to hold everything together despite increasingly overwhelming obstacles, the women in his life, clearly recognizing how black men can be perceived, try to rein him in. It’s this dynamic which makes this film soar and show us some beautifully unchartered territory.
Technically, this largely handheld film has the usual indie aesthetic. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who has done fine work with ANY DAY NOW, elevates things with such warmth in the lighting and in some well-composed wide shots. The scene on a subway train alone, and its aftermath, are models in suspenseful directing and keenly observant camera work. There’s a terrifying domino effect as the many strands in Grant’s life converge and explode here. The score by Ludwig Göransson is subdued and really draws you into our main character’s mindset, while the editing, credited to both Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver, builds with a masterful sense of urgency. I wasn’t bored for a second, and I truly felt something. FRUITVALE STATION is must-see viewing for those who have been hoping for something new in the conversation about race in America.
By Glenn Gaylord