Currently in limited release in theaters friendly to indie films, Fruitvale Station tells the real-life story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an African American man trying at all costs to keep his head above water. Recently out of prison for selling dope, unemployed and behind on rent, Oscar is a dedicated son, father and boyfriend battling both inner demons and external obstacles to make positive changes in his lifestyle.
The film begins with a brief mention of Oscar being unfaithful to his girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz), and hiding an overstuffed baggie of weed in the closet so his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) won’t see it. But almost as quickly as Oscar is established as a bad seed, his heart of gold wins the audience over when he texts his mother (Octavia Spencer) a birthday message just after midnight on December 31, 2008.
Laying his good side on thickly, the film goes on to show Oscar running into a fellow supermarket customer in serious need of recipe help, and without giving it a thought, he calls up his Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears) on the woman’s behalf. While pumping gas, Oscar encounters a stray dog whose misfortune foreshadows his own, and we are given yet another glimpse into his soul. Furthermore, though he’s hardly got anything in the bank for himself, Oscar promises to help his sister through a financial crisis. Realizing he has no other choice but to sell the marijuana in his closet, he makes plans to meet a buyer by the ocean. What Oscar does when he gets there illuminates his daily struggle for survival in a world where right and wrong are not just black and white, but every shade of grey in between.
As Oscar, Michael B. Jordan gives a powerful performance. Whether he’s goofing around with his on-screen daughter or angrily pleading with his former boss for a shift, his energy is electric. He fully embodies that kid from the wrong side of the tracks who was raised right by his mama, in everything from his swagger to his immature antics. Oscar is fiercely protective and his temper can turn on a dime, spiraling out of control faster than a speeding bullet—which, in a sad irony, may have prompted his early demise.
There is little that’s surprising about the way the movie concludes, as it opens with real cell phone footage from San Francisco’s Fruitvale Station on the early morning of January 1, 2009, indisputably implicating a police officer (an almost unrecognizable Chad Michael Murray) in Oscar’s premature death. And yet throughout the movie, the gravity of Oscar’s decisions and their consequences deeply impacts the viewer, so much so that even though you know the outcome, you’re pulling for him until the very end.
Though Octavia Spencer’s role is limited, she should be commended for her ability to communicate a range of emotions with just her eyes. Her love, shock, firmness and guilt are all unveiled through her million-dollar stare—if Spencer ever locked eyes with me, I’m sure hers would penetrate my soul.
And if Spencer’s would be piercing, Ariana Neal’s would melt me into a puddle. This adorable curly-haired beauty has “awww” written all over her precious model face. I look forward to seeing what becomes of her career.
Moreso than any actor’s performance, this movie immortalizes Oscar Grant and brings to light a serious judgment miscall that ended a life much too soon. Was the shooting racially motivated? It’s tough to tell from the film script alone, though the cops in question were white and the Caucasian BART fistfight instigators managed to get away unscathed. Perhaps it was just the mistake of a rookie cop who acted before he thought—giving him much more in common with his victim than he probably realized.
Fruitvale Station is raw, uncomfortable and intense—but it’s also poignant, well-scripted and beautifully acted, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it earns more than one Oscar nomination.