Tuesday, August 6, 2013 —
“Fruitvale Station” is a film that tells the true story of a young black man whose life ends tragically after midnight on Jan. 1, 2009. The filmmakers waste no time telling the audience what is going to happen. It opens with actual footage of the shooting recorded on a cell phone by an innocent bystander. There is no mystery here; just a story of the last 24 hours of a young man’s life before he is killed, perhaps accidently, perhaps because tempers flared and cooler heads did not prevail. This is a sad, moving, brilliant film.
Following the real footage of the shooting, the film recreates the events which began just after midnight, Dec. 31, 2008. We meet Oscar Grant, his girlfriend, and their daughter. This is a loving family. Over the next hour or so (the total running time of the film is a mere 85 minutes, proving that much can be packed into a small amount of screen time), we come to understand who Oscar is and with whom he shares his life. Some scenes are moving. Some are humorous. Some disturbing.
One of the strengths of the film is that Oscar is not drawn as a perfect hero or victim. The audience learns he has been in prison. And Oscar’s temper flares more than once almost to the point of violence. He has been and is involved with drugs. However, he is a young man who loves his mother, his girlfriend, his grandmother, his family and friends and especially his sweet little girl. As each of these relationships is portrayed, it is difficult to not grieve for these people because unlike them, the audience knows what lies ahead. When the mother is depicted as almost begging her son to ride the train rather than driving into San Francisco for New Year’s Eve, one realizes that is a request she will carry with her forever.
Another strength of the film is found in the small stories that offer glimpses of who the real Oscar Grant was. (I am assuming that these stories are based on actual events that he experienced the last day of his life.) Helping a female stranger who wants to know how to fry fish by calling his grandmother for instructions, aiding a pregnant woman who desperately needs a restroom, or assisting a dog who has just be struck by a car, each of these clarifies who Oscar is and who he might have become.
Then there is Michael B. Jordan’s depiction of Oscar that should earn him an Oscar nomination. Octavia Spencer, a previous Oscar winner for “The Help,” plays Oscar’s mother and has her best scenes following the shooting. Add to these a whole host of others who do great work.
There is no way to watch “Fruitvale Station” and not reflect on the Travan Martin case. Regardless of where one stands on the encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman, almost everyone agrees that in the end, it is a tragedy that a young man died. Oscar Grant was another young man who may or may not be judged as responsible for his own demise. (In this case, the cell phone film helps to sort out the blame. If only there was something similar in the Martin case, the verdict might have been less divisive.) The absolute truth in both cases is that a young man with his whole life before him will never get to live that life because of a situation that could have been easily avoided.
I commented to a friend a few days after seeing “Fruitvale Station” that I wondered if some filmmaker would offer a story on Martin like the one told so expressively about Oscar Grant. He bet it is already in the works. I am not so sure, but if it is, I hope it is made with the same dignity and courage as “Fruitvale Station.”
This is one of the best films of the year and I hope many will seek it out.
Roger W. Thomas of Albemarle reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.