“Fruitvale Station” presents us the last slice of one plain life which was ended too soon by a sudden incident. As shown in the movie, his life was rather unremarkable before his death drew the attention of the media in the aftermath, but, as observing his last day, we slowly come to see a young man hoping for a better life for him and his family, and, when the movie ends, his unfortunate death on New Year’s Day in 2009 feels more tragic than before along with the sense of loss hovering over the story.
After the brief prologue scene featuring the actual footage of the events during that night(the incident was shot by several digital video cameras and cellular phones present at that time, and the footage was instantly spread around Internet and the media as it ignited public outrage from all directions), we meet Oscar Grant(Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old young man who is currently living with his girlfriend Sophina(Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter Tatiana(Ariana Neal). When they happen to be together on the bed around the midnight of December 31th, 2008, they look happy to be together with the visible affection between them, but things are not so perfect in their lives. While they love each other, Sophina is still pissed about Oscar’s recent mistake with some other girl, and Oscar has been trying to make up for his mistake
The day goes on normally for everyone several hours later. They take Tatiana to a daycare center in the morning, and then Sophina goes to her workplace, and then Oscar goes to his former workplace to get his job back. It turns out that he was fired for being late several times, and we also come to learn that he has been hiding that fact from his family just because he thought he could take care of this problem in a short time.
As he goes through this day while considering going into drug business again or getting ready for his mother’s birthday party in the evening, the movie stays around Oscar while making us feel like being with him on the spot through its steady handheld camera approach. The movie makes a momentary stop at one point with the flashback sequence showing his time at the state penitentiary 2 years ago, but that comes naturally as he becomes reflective about his life, and that scene painfully shows how he let down his dear mother Wanda(Octavia Spencer), who worried about the future of Oscar’s young daughter as well as her son’s and made a tough decision at the end of their meeting.
While, as a seasoned movie audience, I am well aware of that there are probably many differences between Oscar Grant in real-life and the dramatized version in the movie, Oscar in the movie comes to me as a good-natured guy who screwed up lots of things in his past but has tried to get another chance to lead his life properly, and Michael B. Jordan, a promising young actor who recently drew more attention through his good supporting turn in “Chronicle”(2012), gives us a strong, honest performance to hold us to the mundane daily life of his character. One scene shows how he kindly and thoughtfully helps a young shopper at the supermarket, and, while this scene may feel a bit too artificial, we see how he can approach to others easily through his likability and good will.
The quiet poignancy beneath this scene and other ones is increased as the time goes by, mainly due to our knowledge on what will happen to Oscar in the end. He attends her mother’s birthday party along with other family members who enjoy his company, and then he and Sophia and others go to San Francisco for watching the firework show around the midnight. Before going to San Francisco, Oscar and Sophia drop by the home of Sophia’s sister to have their daughter sleep overnight in that place, and a small moment between Oscar and his daughter is touching and poignant in an understated way. Oscar sincerely promises her daughter another good time, but that is the promise which will never be kept, for, as we all know, this will be the last conversation between them.
The movie eventually arrives in that fateful moment at the Fruitvale Station stop of the Bay Area’s BART line during the early hours of New Year’s Day, and the movie maintains its calm attitude even when the situation suddenly becomes dark and violent. During this devastating scene, the movie clearly shows how wrongly the BART police officers behaved based on their misjudgment and racial prejudice, but the movie gives us some understandings on the two officers mainly responsible for the tragedy. They felt threatened as much as Oscar and his friends, but that does not change the fact that they should have been more careful and sensible about the situation they were supposed to handle professionally, and the same thing can be said about Oscar and his friends, who could have been less provocative in their words and behaviors.
The movie is the first feature-length film from the director/writer Ryan Coogler, who has received lots of acclaims and awards for his debut work since the it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, where it received the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award(it also won the Best First Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival). While showing his passion and sincerity through the respectful and restrained approach to his subject, Coogler gives us a vivid glimpse of human life behind the incident, and we come to accept Oscar as a guy not so different from us despite several specific background details including race and social status. Coolger also pays considerable attention to the people surrounding Oscar as the parts of his life, and Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer give the performances as real as Jordan’s; Spencer is particularly good when Wanda calmly handles the bad news thrown at her and others out of blue, and Diaz fills her character with warm presence while making her private scenes with Jordan tender and sensitive.
Simply presenting Oscar Grant as a human being who did not deserve to be killed, “Fruitvale Station” subtly induces several thoughts and discussions on race and other social issues while not heavily emphasizing them in its powerful story(As listening to a small conversation during the scene in which Oscar encounters a young white couple, I began to wonder about how more social advantages this couple had compared to Oscar and Sophina). Whatever you think about these issues, it is undeniable that a tragedy happened and one life was irreversibly lost, and that is a really sad thing above all.