Published on August 19th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Fruitvale Station 
Summary: This startling character study showcases two of Hollywood's fastest rising stars: director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. Fruitvale has an agenda but its performances are striking and authentic.
R | 85 min.
Director: Ryan Coogler | Screenplay: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Studio: Significant Productions, OG Project | Distribution: The Weinstein Company
In America’s macho culture, men often have a hard time admitting that they have, on occassion, actually cried. Denis Leary said it’s traditionally only acceptable if a favorite athlete announces his retirement.
I’m not too proud to admit that Fruitvale Station broke me down.
I don’t want to paint the picture that I was bawling in a public cinema while watching writer/director Ryan Coogler’s staggering film–but I would be lying through my teeth if I said tears didn’t flow during its closing minutes. The bottom line on this picture is that it’s a difficult watch.
Fruitvale Station is grounded in reality but seems to play very loose with the facts that make up its plot’s foundation, making for a character-driven flick that also feels heavy-handed with its message. Our story centers on Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old former inmate with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to look out for. Oscar has been “selling trees” to get by after recently losing his job, but is at a point in his life where he wants to go legit. However, everything is changed in an instant on New Year’s Day 2009–after an unfair altercation with several police officers.
The film’s odd-sounding title comes from the Oakland train station where its painful climax takes place. In fact, calling it painful may be the understatement of the century–Fruitvale Station’s ending is the celluloid equivalent of an overhand right from Tommy Hearns.
This is not a movie that features much in the way of action. Most of Fruitvale Station‘s short length is spent simply following Oscar through what will ultimately be (spoiler alert!) the final 24 hours of his life. This storytelling device is what gave me the most pause in believing the film’s authenticity. We watch as Oscar loses and subsequently attempts to regain Sophina’s trust, tries to get back his legitimate job which he had recently lost, attempts to quit the weed dealing game, organizes his mother’s birthday party, and finally spends the night out celebrating with his buddies–damn that’s a busy day!
Some have knocked this movie for idealizing its main character in order to drive home its message of cruel injustice being a danger for anyone on the street. While Jordan’s performance is undeniably powerful, I didn’t feel like Oscar was painted as anything but a normal kid. Sure, he’s charming and capable of many sweet moments with his daughter but this is a guy that we find out has cheated on his longtime girlfriend, spent time locked up, keeps a stash of pot in his house, violently threatens his innocent former boss, and annoyingly uses the word “bruh” in every other sentence. Oscar is certainly shown to have more than his share of issues but the sad irony of the story is that he’s cut down right as he begins an earnest attempt at changing his life.
If Michael B. Jordan doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for his work in this movie, it will be a crime. The actor, previously seen in 2012’s Chronicle and NBC’s Parenthood, has immediately thrown himself to the top of Hollywood’s list of young talent with this lead performance. The entire cast is Fruitvale Station‘s biggest asset, keeping the movie’s strong sense of realism intact.
Melonie Diaz provides the emotional core, her fiery attitude turning to tears along with the audience’s own changing moods. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer (also a co-executive producer) turns in another memorable performance–once again standing as a stoic pillar as the other characters look to her for guidance. However, it’s Jordan who carries Fruitvale Station from start-to-finish–in what will be remembered as 2013’s breakout performance.
I applaud Coogler for making this brave picture and telling the tragic story of Oscar Grant to a large audience. Fruitvale Station should not be taken as a cautionary tale–as his death was completely an accident and not a deliberate racially-motivated killing. The moral of this story is that awful things happen to decent people sometimes and that life doesn’t always allow for self-redemption. The heart of this story comes from the close relationship between Oscar and Tatiana–something that greatly endears this character that is a bit rough around the edges.
Oscar may come off as a negative black stereotype in some scenes (dealing drugs, displaying violent tendencies), but mostly he’s just a guy caught between adolescence and manhood. The tragedy is that he never gets a real shot at growing up.