Fruitvale Station began on a mistake. Who could possibly wander into the film not knowing that it is about the killing of Oscar Grant? Yet there it was, grainy footage from someone's cell phone, telling everything we needed to know before the title has even rolled in. Oscar Grant was laid on his stomach. Then he was shot. Nothing more, nothing less.
I was wrong. Painfully. Later we see Oscar (Michael P. Jordan) pumping gas at a station and getting friendly with a pup that wags its tail and is happy to get some attention. We hear a thunk, whining, Oscar running full speed at a car speeding away, yelling to slow down. He turns around, we see the dog as he does, and he comforts the pup until it dies peacefully.
Cliche - the dog always gets out of the film alive. Director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler, with what I later found out really is his first feature film, molds our sympathies for this moment with a dark point. The film opens on real footage of a black man being shot for no crime. Yet here we are, crying that this dog (who may not even have existed) as it whimpers its last breath, and that someone was good enough to stop and comfort it. That someone who we didn't even cry for at the beginning.
If we look to fiction for answers, and if Fruitvale Station supplies anything like this, it's that we can't keep treating these deaths as just another thing that happens. This is as timely a film as we are going to get this year, and the film making is almost without fault. I was mesmerized, wrapped up in the waking dream of Oscar's last day, floating through the holiday with his family only to be dragged down, or allow himself to go under, due to problems both of his own devising and those out of his control.
The shooting style is that sort of perfect hand-held documentary flavor that can only be attained with tons of work and incredible attention to detail. Aside from a few crucial scenes, the camera is steady and focused on Oscar from start to finish. It eschews realism to allow the glare of a setting sun shine on Oscar and his daughter, intensity the edges around Oscar when he's frustrated, and get us into the rhythm of his life through his communications. There are many delightful moments stemming from Coogler's decision to put Oscar's phone communications on-screen (like a talk between Oscar and his grandma that got a few lovely chuckles out of me).
Coogler is in complete control of the tone every second of the frame. In lesser hands the movie would be dripping with foreshadowing given the way Oscar's life ended. But we don't live that way, even if things are bad rarely do people sit around and think, "Today is the day I'm going to die." Fruitvale Station emphasizes just how important it was for Oscar to live before he meets his fate. In encounters both intimate and by chance Coogler let's us get to know Oscar and draws a full portrait of him thanks to the performance of the uncommonly gifted Jordan.
Jordan breathes every bit of Oscar without letting any aspect of his personality overwhelm the richness of his character. Oscar had a temper that edged on violent but Jordan knew just how much of a mistake it would have been to let that violence break at the wrong moment. It's a tensing, a narrowing of the eyes and firmer breathing, the little things that let us know what he's capable of. But there's the restraint, the happiness, the little details like Oscar racing his daughter and getting a head start by jokingly putting his hand in front of her face. Jordan has never been better and, for someone who cut his teeth on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, is showing that when able to meet his full potential as a solo performer he has already become one of the greats.
But it all comes back to Coogler's skill behind the camera. I was impressed at just how many times I thought the film was going in one direction only to have it spin around my expectations. Beyond Jordan, look at some of the casting, especially the performer who plays the officer that shoots Oscar. It's a brilliant stroke, and one that also makes a point, it may not be the obvious culprit who loses control and finally kills someone who didn't deserve it, but the atmosphere that officers have allowed to fester in touchy situations breeds more violence than peaceable solutions. This bit of casting, and the way Coogler plays with it, doesn't answer why Oscar got shot but spotlights what needs changed about our attitudes to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
I didn't want Fruitvale Station to end. It's not that I was hoping to stay with Oscar long after his life is taken away, but the bravery that Coogler shows in letting us know that life goes on. There were, by my count, at least three points in the last ten minutes that he could have ended the film on and I would have thought it was the best way to stop the film. Then it kept going, and impossibly found something better. And better. And better. Finally it ends on the only question it should, signaling the finality of Oscar's last night, and that we must find some way to continue.
Fruitvale Station signals the beginning of greatness for Ryan Coogler, only younger than me by two years. Cinema is the best art form for empathy and he's working with an abundance of it already, navigating tricky scenarios with great love and skill. It's an honor to have seen this film and be reminded that cinema is still a source of great social importance, even if it's through a road we'd rather not have to take.
Screenplay written and directed by Ryan Coogler.
Starring Michael P. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer.