Mini-Review: FRUITVALE STATION

fruitvale station poster

Fruitvale Station is based on the true events of December 31, 2008 and the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009 involving the wrongful shooting death by an Oakland transit police officer of young Oscar Grant. The events of that night led to protesting and rioting in the Oakland area. The officer involved in the shooting, Johannes Mehserle, was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison out of a 2-year sentence. He was later fired from the police force. The incident sparked nationwide outrage, civil lawsuits on behalf of the family, and now this film. The movie was shot in just 20 days last July with a budget of less than $1 million. It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and took home the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, which if I’m not mistaken are the two biggest awards given out at Sundance.

The film was written and directed by first-time feature director Ryan Coogler. The most impressive thing about this is that Cooger is only 27 years old. He’s also black, which makes me proud. We need more prominent black filmmakers making good movies that matter like this. This is what John Singleton used to be before he became a studio director-for-hire (which really pains me to say, because I’m a huge fan of a good portion of his work). When I think about who the most influential and powerful black filmmakers are right now, I come up with names like Tyler Perry (God bless him for his success and positive influence on the black community, but he’s a terrible writer and director), Antoine Fuqua, Spike Lee, and…who, the Hughes brothers? We’ve also got guys like Steve McQueen and Lee Daniels on the rise. But sadly, I can’t think of a single black female director who has made more than one studio film. Regardless, it’s a pathetically short list that desperately needs some new names added to it. Coogler is from the Bay Area and went to USC’s film school as a post-grad. I have some issues with the way he shot the movie (which we’ll get into below), but he does an incredible job with his actors, and the climactic, inevitable scene at the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train station is as raw and true as scenes like the opening Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan or the Osama bin Laden raid from last year’s Zero Dark Thirty. Obviously on a much smaller scale, but by the end of it, you’ll be just as short of breath and your palms will be just as sweaty. Brilliantly executed, and it was shot at the real-life location (credit to BART for cooperating with the production and allowing them to film at the scene of the crime).

The film takes place over the span of about a day, showing Oscar Grant’s day on New Year’s Eve leading all the way up to the shooting at the train station just after 2am on January 1st, ’09. We get a brief glimpse into what he was like as a father, son and boyfriend, where he was in his life at that exact moment (a part-time drug dealer struggling for money who was recently fired from his supermarket job for being late repeatedly), and the sequence of events that led to his tragic death. The biggest revelation in the movie is actor Michael B. Jordan, playing the 22-year old Oscar Grant. Jordan will be familiar to fans of the Friday Night Lights TV show, and he was also one of the stars of last year’s underrated sci-fi flick Chronicle. His portrayal of Grant is brutally honest and pulls no punches. The character is portrayed with as much truth as the filmmakers could find, but of course there are dramatic licenses taken. Obviously, we don’t know exactly what Grant did for the entire day leading up to his death.

This is the kind of star-making dramatic role that all young actors dream about. Much like we need more prominent filmmakers of color, we also need more black movie stars. As I’ve said in the past on this blog, it seems as though Anthony Mackie is the only black actor under 35 getting consistent work these days. I’m still not convinced he’s got “movie star” potential, but I do think that potential is there in the raw talent of Michael B. Jordan, and I want to see what he can do with other lead roles in the near future. Let’s just hope he’s getting better career advice than some of his peers and avoids hopping onto some shitty $200 million summer blockbuster.

oscarandkid

Sidenote: It’s too bad Michael B. Jordan has such an unfortunate name. I’m sorry dude, but I can’t look at your name without thinking about #23. Sticking your middle initial in there didn’t do much good. He may as well be called Michael S. Jackson or Tiger D. Woods. I feel like he should’ve just used his middle name and become Bakari Jordan or Michael Bakari, or even better, created a stage name for himself, like…wait for it…MIKE SNIPER. Think about it. If a guy named Lonnie Lynn Jr. can call himself Common professionally, or O’Shea Jackson can be known as Ice Cube, or Mark Sinclair can become Vin Diesel, then Michael B. Jordan can become Mike Sniper, goddammit. Consider the awesome blurb potential: “Mike Sniper assassinates audiences and critics alike with another terrific performance!” Amiright, or amiright?

Annnnd I’ve gone too far…

You can determine for yourself whether or not you believe the depiction of Oscar Grant is manipulative, as some have suggested. I for one did not. The movie shows us Oscar’s struggles and faults as well as showing him to be a loving father and seemingly decent guy. He’s a sympathetic figure in the film, but I don’t think it’s forced. Any dramatization of true events has to find a balance to create good drama. This is not a documentary, even if the way it’s shot does feel like one. Ryan Coogler has said that his primarily goal with the film was to show the audience the humanity of the kid, so that people don’t see him as simply another statistic or as a name on a headline. I for one say he succeeded. The emotion you should feel coming out of the movie is the sadness of knowing that this kid didn’t deserve to be shot that night. I’d suggest you reserve your opinion of the Oakland transit police force and the trial of the officer who shot Grant until you’ve read the facts of the case. There are a few post-scripts at the end of the film, but not enough to give you proper context upon which to base an informed opinion.

The other two noteworthy performances come from Octavia Spencer, playing Oscar’s mom, and Melonie Diaz in a breakthrough performance as Oscar’s girlfriend and mother-of-his-child, Sophina. Both are terrific and worthy of supporting actress consideration. Young Ariana Neal is also really good as Oscar and Sophina’s daughter, Tatiana. It’s rare to see a child actor that young come across as so natural. All of the performances feel similarly real, from Oscar’s family and friends to the cops at the end of the movie.

Credit also needs to paid here to Forest Whitaker, who is one of the producers on the movie. His production company is the one who gave Ryan Coogler the opportunity to get the ball rolling in turning the project from an idea into an actual screenplay. This movie likely would not have been made (or at least not made as fast as it was) without Whitaker’s company’s involvement.

My only big issues with the film have to do with the clichéd indie/no-budget way in which it was shot. I’m pretty sure the entire movie was shot handheld, which in this instance frequently creates framing and focusing issues, and just makes the movie look…cheap. Seriously, are tripods that expensive to rent? I know for a fact that it isn’t expensive to create shots that betray your budget. I understand the techniques here were done to create a sense of intimacy, but there are some wide shots and master shots in the film that would have looked much better had they been locked down.

Because of the timing of the film’s release, coincidentally so close to the controversial George Zimmerman verdict, a lot of people are comparing the two incidents as if they’re identical. You know the line: there isn’t any justice when it’s a young black male getting shot. In fact, a lot of people on Twitter made the comparison IMMEDIATELY after the Zimmerman verdict, saying it made Fruitvale Station all the more relevant. This is irresponsible at best, at worst it’s people being maliciously opportunistic in using Oscar Grant’s situation to show how right they are in protesting the circumstances of Trayvon Martin‘s death. The two situations couldn’t be more different to people with a brain and no agenda. I don’t want to turn this review into another political rant, but people who are only after the facts in either of these cases need to be aware of the dangerous distortion industry that’s currently running at full power.

Original byline: RON KOEBERER/

In closing, I very much look forward to seeing what Ryan Coogler does next (it’s looking like it might be THIS), and if the current buzz is any indication, there’s a decent chance Michael B. Jordan’s name will be among the 5-10 leading candidates for Best Actor nominees once awards season ramps up in a few months. Fruitvale Station is not a movie you’re gonna watch repeatedly, but it’s a MUST SEE at least once, and I’d suggest that one time ought to be pretty fuckin soon, while it’s still in theaters. Movies like this need audience support IN THEATERS or else we’ll get to a point where low-budget films skip theaters altogether. That’s not a world I want to live in. I want to be able to see movies of all sizes and budgets on the big screen with an audience. The day that changes is the day I reconsider my lifelong desire to become a filmmaker.

Fruitvale Station – 86 minutes – R

Additional Reading:

-Wikipedia’s page on the incident is an interesting read: BART Police Shooting of Oscar Grant.

Forbes writer Kyle Smith calls the film out on some facts it gets wrong (in the author’s view) in order to further present Grant as a sympathetic figure: Fruitvale Station’ is Loose with the Facts….

Slate does a good job separating some of the fact from fiction: How Accurate is Fruitvale Station?

IMDb Rating: 7/10

Biggies Consideration: Best Director (Ryan Coogler), Actor (Michael B. Jordan), Supporting Actress (Melonie Diaz), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

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11 Responses to “Mini-Review: FRUITVALE STATION”


  1. 1 cellenbogen July 28, 2013 at 11:30 PM

    I just saw this last night and have been looking for reviews. Thanks for this. Can you give an example or two of a shot that would have worked better had it been locked down?

    I thought the portrayal of Grant was even-handed. I’ll check out the links you’ve provided.

    And I hear you about the false comparisons to the trial in Florida.

    • 2 Biggie July 29, 2013 at 6:24 PM

      I would’ve stabilized any wide shots, basically. For example, even the shot across the bay showing the fireworks was handheld. The shots of the trains passing by could’ve been done on a tripod, but basically any wide angle I think should’ve been static. Those are meant to be objective points of view, while the closeups of people talking are handheld to create intimacy, like the audience is standing in the room with them. I don’t have a problem with handheld dialogue scenes (although like I said, it’s a cliched technique for low-budget movies like this), but I think you need to have a balance or else the whole movie feels cheap. Hopefully that makes sense.

      • 3 cellenbogen July 29, 2013 at 9:35 PM

        It does; thanks.

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