From there, we meet Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old living in Hayward, California. A title card tells us that it is the last day of 2008, and a brief exchange between Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) makes it clear that Oscar plans to go into the New Year a changed man. He’s going to stop selling weed, he’s going to stop sleeping around, and he’s going to be a better, more stable father for his and Sophia’s daughter. And, essentially, it is the notion of Oscar’s resolutions that fulfill the entirely of Fruitvale Station.
Point is, Coogler never dares to turn Oscar into a saint. He paints a balanced picture throughout. A balance that becomes essential to the worth of the movie. Many will argue that Fruitvale Station presents Oscar as a man who can do no wrong. I strongly disagree. This is a guy who’s well aware of his flaws, despite whatever changes he’s attempting to make.
Late in the day, Oscar leaves his mother’s birthday party to hit the town with his friends. They go watch fireworks, sip alcohol casually, and catch a late Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train back home. In the film’s most horrifying shot, we watch as Oscar, Sophina and their friends board a crowded BART train. The train begins to leave, but the camera stays put, only panning left to watch as the train disappears into a tunnel. We watch, and we dread where this is going.
At just 85 minutes long, Coogler has crafted as confident and briskly paced a debut feature as I can recall. Not one second of Fruitvale Station is extraneous, and, at the same time, there is no need for it to be longer. Oscar and his friends board the train at roughly the one-hour mark of the film, yet everything that happens before and after is laced with nervous tension.
As Oscar, Michael B. Jordan delivers one of the finest, most self-assured performances of this or any year. Jordan is best known for playing the frustratingly naive Wallace on Season 1 of The Wire, and a troubled quarterback in later seasons of Friday Night Lights. I was a fan of his work in those two shows, but in Fruitvale Station, Jordan achieves sheer greatness. He understands the balance set by Coogler, and knows to never push or retreat too far. I didn’t always agree with Oscar or the decisions he made, but I consistently felt obligated to follow him.
Octavia Spencer has been around for decades, popping up in several films and television shows throughout her impressive career. In 2011, she won an Oscar for her supporting turn in The Help, a film whose praise I will never understand. No matter. As I watched her performance as Wanda, it was as if I was watching Spencer for the first time. Wanda is a strong willed woman played by an equally fierce actress. She crushed me with her eyes, and floored me with her acceptance. To say it is the finest performance of Spencer’s career would be a drastic understatement.
In addition to Jordan and Spencer’s performances, Melonie Diaz’s frustrated turn as Sophina is wildly compelling, while the film’s tight photography and seamless editing help give a distinct feeling of claustrophobia. We’re stuck inside this world, unable to flee, forced to take notice.
Fruitvale Station is that rare kind of film that can change things. It exists right now, in limited theatrical release, begging to be discovered. Once discovered, it can open people’s eyes; it can alter perceptions and evoke understanding. But perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps a small, topical, American independent film can’t do as much as I hope it can. Perhaps its existence isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s the responsibility of viewers like me – viewers who were dumbfounded by its impact – to champion the film. Fruitvale Station is that rare kind of film that forces people to reexamine their thinking for the better. If that’s not a cause worth championing, then I’m not entirely sure what is. A