Monday, July 29, 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013)

I've been looking forward to watching Fruitvale Station for a while, but was a little more nervous about writing my review.  I wasn't worried about how the material was going to be handled, but more that I tend to avoid politically charged discussions, especially on the internet.  Let me get all my disclaimers out of the way.  I don't want anyone to think that I'm condoning the actions of the BART police, nor that I know anything about Oscar Grant as a person.  The events of that night were a series of unfortunate mistakes that let to the killing of a young man.  It's simply tragic.  I'm sure I'm not the only one that watched those video clips of that night and said, "F-ing cops!", or, "Hey man, just shut up and stay seated.  Stop trying to stand up and argue with them."

For those of you that don't know me personally, you may not be aware that I live and grew up in the East Bay Area.  I've ridden that very same BART train for most of my life.  I passed through the Fruitvale Station more times than I can count.  It's one of the many stops on the way when going out to San Francisco to watch movie screenings or hang out with friends.  I remember all the news reports and clips of the Oscar Grant shooting as it happened, as well as a lot of the aftermath.  I'm not going to get into the trial or anything like that, and try as much as I can to stay away from editorializing too much here.

As far as the film, it was interesting seeing BART and the Bay Area from a perspective that I normally don't see.  I also appreciated the fact that it was actually filmed in the Bay Area, and not some other location and then passed off as from here.  I recognized too many places for them to have faked it.  However, despite living here all my life, I've never had a reason to get off at Fruitvale Station.  I think a lot of people you'll talk to from the Bay Area haven't been there either.  You only get off there if you live there.  It's not a place to hang out or shop.  I actually had this very conversation with someone at a bar the night before seeing the film.

Again, this isn't to let the BART police off the hook in any way, but BART is no picnic sometimes.  I can tell you from my own experience that I've seen fights break out, panhandling, homeless people pissing on trains and in the station.  It's well known that if you plan on drinking and going to San Francisco; or an A's, Warriors, Raiders or Giants game and don't want to drive, then you take BART.  I've been on packed trains full of angry, drunk people.  Sometimes you have try your hardest not to make eye contact with anyone.  I recently witnessed a toothless man shout at people that he was going to kick their asses, and half the train clearing out to avoid any trouble.  This was on a random, Tuesday afternoon.  There's part of me that understands the quick and aggressive reaction from the police on a night like New Year's Eve, when they run the trains later than normal.  New Year's isn't the only time I've seen the BART police react in force to an event night.  Also, note that I have good friends that are cops.  I also have friends that are from that part of the Bay Area.  They are all good people.  Sure, there are some bad eggs out there, but I'm just trying to say that it's not all black and white, and I understand some different perspectives.  So much for me trying to not be political.

Fruitvale Station begins with one of the many cell phone clips of that fateful New Year's Day back in 2009.  If you weren't familiar with the events as the movie began, you know right from the start how it's going to end up.  As a result, there's a cloud of dread that hangs over the story throughout as we follow the last day of Oscar Grant, played in the film by Michael B. Jordan.

One thing that struck me was that the film didn't paint Grant as some kind of saint. You're watching him argue with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) about his sleeping around with another woman, and then he hides a bag of pot when his daughter (Ariana Neal) comes to the door.  I don't really care if he was selling pot.  That's not a big deal to me, so I didn't look at this as something that made him a bad person.  Through some flashbacks, we also see that Oscar was a convicted felon that spent time in prison.  Shades of grey.

As we watch the events unfold, we see that it's Oscar's mother's (Octavia Spencer) birthday.  He spends a good portion of his day running errands and communicating with family and friends while planning her birthday dinner, and then what they plan on doing for New Year's Eve.  We also see him struggling with keeping a job and how to best raise his daughter.  The movie does a great job of making Oscar a sympathetic character.  You could argue that it's heavily embellished or attempts to manipulate you in this regard, but I never got the feeling that's what writer/director Ryan Coogler was trying to do.  It's not heavy handed like that, or has a cheesy musical score that forces you to feel a certain way.

I say embellished because Oscar spends a lot of this film by himself, so I can't say how much of this is just guesswork, artistic license or dramatization.  I'd like to know if Ryan Coogler was able to sit down with Oscar's with family and friends to get a little more insight into him.  What you get from the film is that Oscar was a young guy that's made some mistakes, but wants to turn his life around.  Again, even if Oscar had done some bad things in the past, he was still a man that didn't deserve what happened to him.  Plus, the cops couldn't have been aware of his record at the time.  One of the saddest things about Fruitvale Station is that I came away saying, "What if?"  What if the cops had handled that situation better?  Would Oscar have been able to turn his life around?  We'll never know.  How is this going to affect his daughter going forward?  If her family is as loving as what we get from the film, I think she'll turn out just fine.

Even if this wasn't based on a true story, it would be just as tragic and heart wrenching to watch.  I'm willing to admit that I teared up at the end a little.  It's that powerful and emotional.  Octavia Spencer is great and has few moments that are going to pull on the heartstrings a bit, but Michael B. Jordan's performance is truly amazing.  I've been impressed with him for a while, but this is really a breakout role for those unfamiliar with him.  There's no way you can watch Fruitvale Station and not feel something for Oscar Grant because of Jordan's performance.  Despite knowing how this is going to end, I couldn't help hoping it was going to turn out differently somehow.

I'm shocked to see that this is a first time effort from Ryan Coogler.  I'm absolutely blown away at the effort from a 27-year-old.  I'm glad to see that he's also a Bay Area native.  However, I was kind of surprised to a see a film written by a native where he allowed characters to refer to San Francisco as "Frisco".  Unless something has changed recently and I didn't get the memo, it's always been frowned upon to call it "Frisco".  Around here it's The City, SF or even sometimes San Fran.  This is a nitpick as far as the film goes, but I've seen people have angry or violent reactions to the use of the term "Frisco".

I also have to give some credit to Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray for playing the BART cops on that night.  Durand, in particular, is an actor I like quite a bit, but they had to have known going in that they are playing two guys that are generally hated.  I felt that was kind of gutsy on their part for taking on the roles, cause you're going to watch Fruitvale Station and think they are dickhead cops.

Powerful, emotional and wonderfully acted, Fruitvale Station puts a human face on a recent tragedy.  It reminds you of how short and tragic life can be.  The film also highlights Michael B. Jordan as a future star and director Ryan Coogler as a filmmaker to keep your eye on.  I would not be surprised to see multiple Oscar nominations for the film, and it's easily one of the year's best.  You need to see this.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars


  1. Great review, and I was really interested with your perspective being from that area. I've only been to the Bay Area once, but I was taught to NOT say 'Frisco' so I too was confused with the usage in the movie, because Coogler is from the area too. Maybe he assumes people not from SF use the term so it resonates? Not sure.

    From my research on Coogler's process on making this film, he was able to meet with Grant's family and his group of best friends (as did Michael B. Jordan). Such an accomplishment from a 27-year-old!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, the "Frisco" thing is more of a nitpick, but it's always jarring to hear knowing how much people around here react to it.

      I saw the research you referenced in your review, so that actually makes this even more impressive to me. I really can't wait to see what Coogler does next.