Emmett Till. James Chaney. Michael Donald. Trayvon Martin. Darius Simmons.
These five young African American men were killed, and the events surrounding their deaths made local and national headlines. Their senseless deaths span a nearly 60-year period. Some of the perpetrators responsible were brought to justice, and some weren’t.
As Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the superb new docudrama, Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for drama earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler documents the last day in the short life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man and father of one from the San Francisco Bay area, who was shot by a young white cop in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.
Grant and his girlfriend were out with friends ringing in the New Year in downtown San Francisco. At the suggestion of a loved one, they took the commuter train into the city to avoid traffic. As they all were heading back home a few hours into Jan. 1, 2009, Grant was coerced into an altercation with a fellow passenger. The police were quickly summoned, they removed Grant and some of his friends from the train, and detained them at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. Grant was later shot in the back by the aforementioned cop while laying face down on the station’s platform. Grant died later that day from his injuries. The cop who fatally shot him later claimed that the shooting was a mistake, that he was reaching for his Taser and not his service pistol.
Fruitvale Station opens with actual footage from that fateful night that was taken by one of the numerous innocent bystanders who captured the moments leading up to Grant’s shooting on their cell phones and digital cameras.
It’s a bold move letting the audience know upfront what’s going to eventually happen to the film’s main protagonist. In choosing to structure the film in such a way, Coogler wisely opts to let the remainder of the film unfold in a casual fashion. Doing so makes the progression to that fateful night increasingly more unnerving. Restrained yet forceful, the film reminds the audience that more often than not, the last day of someone’s life is typically like any other before it.
In Fruitvale Station, we meet Oscar Grant at a point in his life where trying to do the right thing after years of making wrong choices is motivating him to better his life even though there are circumstances conspiring against him.
Relative newcomer Michael B. Jordan (TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood,” "The Wire") gives a revelatory, star-making performance as Oscar Grant. Nimbly carrying the film from scene to scene, Jordan has got swagger that’s reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, and acting chops that are formidable. He’s ideally paired with Melonie Diaz, who’s quite impressive as Oscar’s forgiving girlfriend and baby’s mother. The same holds true with Ariana Neal who plays Oscar’s young daughter. Tender and playful moments between Oscar and his daughter are both touching and heartbreaking to watch given his eventual fate.
In a film filled with memorable moments, one that stands out in particular is a scene involving Oscar and his mother Wanda (beautifully played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) in which, during a phone conversation, she asks him if he’s using a blue tooth as he’s driving. He’s not, but assures her that he is. Meanwhile, he pulls over to the side of the road and proceeds to tuck his flip phone under his skull cap and resumes driving.
He does so to not only appease his concerned mother, but also to do the responsible thing.
Grade: 5 stars (out of 5)
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, and Ahna O’Reilly
Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Written By: Ryan Coogler
Produced By: Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Rating: R, for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Running Time: Approximately 84 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2013