Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station has won numerous awards since it began the festival circuit at Sundance this year. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a 22 year old from Hayward, California who was shot dead by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police (BART) on New Year’s Day in 2009.
Director Ryan Coogler has said that he wanted to make a film about Grant’s last day: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean?”
Based on audience reaction in the theater, Coogler has emphatically succeeded. The majority of viewers likely know how it will end – but that only makes the build up to the climax all the more heartrending.
Coogler approaches his subject matter with a steady gaze. Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, is depicted as neither a hero nor a villain – he has his faults, as we all do, but he also has the self-awareness to recognize them.
At the center of the film is his relationship with his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a four year old daughter. We understand that Grant has let them down in the past – yet Sophina acknowledges Grant’s willingness to be honest with her, and they spend New Year’s Eve with his family before heading out for the night.
Grant’s relationship with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer has also seen strain. One of the most striking scenes in the film takes place in a flashback when she visits him in jail. Jordan truly excels here – we see Grant’s vulnerability contrast with the harsh necessity of maintaining a tough exterior something that Jordan conveys with just a subtle shift in his gaze. Grant’s deep affection for his family is evident here too. He is visibly upset after learning that his daughter doesn’t understand why he isn’t around, and when his mother states that it’s the last time she’ll be visiting him in jail, he has to be restrained by prison guards.
As the film reveals Grant’s last hours, we’re left with a compelling portrait of a life that ended far too soon. The intelligence of Fruitvale Station lies in its ability to touch on something deeply human: those small moments of tenderness and understanding that occur in everyday life and that, in the end, are also what connect us to Oscar Grant.