by George Wolf
If you don’t already know the true story behind Fruitvale Station, just make it a point to see this touching, powerful, superbly acted film, and read no further.
It concerns the tragic death of Oscar Grant, shot dead at the age of 22 by Bay Area transit police on the first day of 2009. A sad and needless incident, it arrives on the screen as a remarkably assured feature debut from writer/director Ryan Coogler.
Himself a native of the Bay Area, Coogler strikes the perfect tone to tell Grant’s story, eschewing easy grandstanding in favor of a personal, intensely intimate approach. Shot on location in Oakland, much of the film has a verite feel, presenting Grant as a flawed, dimensional character, a real human being living a life we just happen to drop into.
Coogler’s storytelling is so casual and free of pretension that it could have backfired, failing to hold an audience’s attention. His genius move is to open the film with (be warned) the shocking cell phone video of Grant’s actual shooting, thus giving the dramatic narrative that follows it a quiet sense of foreboding, as each minute takes us closer to the unfortunate turn of events that took Grant’s life.
In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan (The Wire) is simply a revelation. His nuanced performance shows us Grant’s soul, making it nearly impossible not to be moved by his fate. The supporting cast, most notably Melonie Diaz as Grant’s girlfriend and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as his mother, matches Jordan in equally heartbreaking fashion. The entire ensemble, top to bottom, is first rate.
A sure contender this upcoming awards season, Fruitvale Station becomes so eloquently universal precisely by remaining so personal. Though indeed an account of a young black man gunned down by a white security officer, the film’s only agenda is to tell Grant’s story, not manufacture a martyr.
In doing so, an impressive new filmmaker has delivered an important kick to the gut that you won’t shake for days.