Fruitvale Station (2013)
When the ending to Fruitvale Station came and went, my first response was a "huh? That's it?" This film ends just before what I thought was going to be the most interesting part -- the moment just after Oscar dies and you expect to see the community rallying against the incident of police brutality that took his life. (No point in spoiler warnings, since the film opens with the real-life camera phone footage of Oscar being shot, which this film's story is built around.) But then I thought about it on the way home. Not only did I remember that this film was based on a true story, but the film went on to explain that the resulting trial was a fairly open-and-shut case that saw the trigger-happy cop responsible being thrown in jail for manslaughter. (It's not mentioned here, but his family also won a massive settlement from Bay Area Rapid Transit.) Had the film continued on from the point where his family reacts to Oscar's death, the result would've been either a fairly boring courtroom drama, or one that would've been forced to drastically change the real-life events in order to make things interesting, which would've been an insult to Oscar Grant and those who had been affected by his death. And coming so soon after the Zimmerman trial (and likely having been filmed during it), I think it's likely that there was a lot of temptation to do just that in order to capitalize on the debates currently raging.
Fortunately, instead of going either of those routes, Fruitvale Station wisely chooses not to focus on how Oscar died, but on how he lived. Specifically, this film follows the last day of his life, as he tries to raise his daughter Tatiana and get along with his girlfriend Sophina, get his job at the supermarket back, confront the choices that had led to him doing time in prison, hang out with his friends and family, and eventually head into San Francisco for the New Year's celebration, not knowing that he will not live to see the next day. This produces an infinitely more powerful film, finding drama in everyday life and the foreknowledge of what is coming rather than forcing it upon viewers by having firebrand arguments about police brutality and racism that have already been done by the likes of Spike Lee.
Central to this film's strength is its lead performance by Michael B. Jordan (no relation to the basketball star) as Oscar. I thought that Jordan was good in the last movie I'd seen him in, the found-footage superhero film Chronicle, but here he truly shines. His Oscar is neither a saint nor a hoodlum, but rather, an ordinary working-class black guy who had made mistakes in the past and is now trying to go on with his life. His performance makes us truly invest in this guy and his otherwise normal day-to-day existence, while our foreknowledge of what is going to happen adds a degree of tension to every event, even the most banal. Surrounding Jordan is a supporting cast led by Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mom Wanda and a large bunch of unknowns in major and minor roles alike, all of whom, without exception, display extraordinary talent playing their characters. Thanks to both the acting and some quality writing, we get the sense that these are real people, not Hollywood caricatures of what working-class black people are like.
Lending even more authenticity to this film is its unglamorous directing style, done on handheld cameras with little in the way of flashy editing. The film almost feels like a documentary with the way it is shot, using this style the way it is meant to be used -- not to create disjointed chaos like so many action films, but to display the film's subject matter, its characters, and its actors as directly as possible and let them speak for themselves. I was engrossed with this film's depiction of Oakland, California, particularly its frequent shots of the BART trains to remind us of how this film is destined to end, with its soundtrack of late '00s rap songs pulling me in further. This film is absolutely dripping with atmosphere, reminiscent of how many '70s urban dramas brought life to the gritty streets of New York, to the point where I was almost able to smell the cooking in Wanda's kitchen.
Score: 5 out of 5
It doesn't matter if you're black or white, you should find any excuse you can to go see this amazing film. Had it been released in the fall, it would've been an easy contender for Academy Award nominations. As it stands, while its August release provides it with almost no competition, that only means that it's likely to get the audience it deserves with few other decent films coming out at the moment.