Last week, Fruitvale Station, an award-winning film at Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals produced by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, opened in theaters in Washington, D.C., a week ahead of its nationwide release. The urban drama is about Oscar Grant, the unarmed young black man fatally shot by a white transit police officer who allegedly mistook his taser for his gun during an altercation at a BART station in Oakland, Calif. on New Year's Day 2009.
Fruitvale Station is the first full-length feature of 27-year-old Ryan Coogler, a San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center youth counselor and football star turned filmmaker. Oakland-raised, he filmed Fruitvale Station in real-life locations there and centered its sound design on the BART trains' screeches and moans. Coogler, who began writing the script as a film student at USC, said he was inspired to make the film because of a number of parallels he noticed between himself and 22-year-old Grant.
"Just look at him. We were the same age, from the same place — the East Bay. His friends looked like my friends. At that time, we all dressed the same. In the film, the characters who play the roles of his friends are like the people I grew up with, that's how interchangeable it is. I've been in situations where you get stopped by police — it's not something unfamiliar," Coogler said to Los Angeles Times reporter Pat Morrison in an interview.
The release of the film is aptly, yet uncannily timed, its heaviness amplified by the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman that stirred up a firestorm of outrage and cries of injustice. The killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager, was lawfully justified through the upholding of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.
After feeling personally unsettled by the Zimmerman verdict and the message it sent to me about the insufficient value this country seems to place on black Americans' lives, I was prompted to see if Fruitvale Station measured up to all the overwhelmingly positive hype.
The film somberly traces the final day of Oscar Grant as he makes New Year's resolutions with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), vowing to atone for his past mistakes and create a better future for her and their daughter. Quoting Oprah Winfrey, he tells her at one point, "It only takes 30 days to form a habit, then it becomes second nature."
Coogler's camera captures the dramatization of Grant's encounters with his friends, family, and strangers. From mustering the self-discipline to turn his back on the drug-dealing that sent him to prison and the heart-melting adoration he showers on his daughter (played precociously by Ariana Neal), to putting his grandmother on the phone to help a stranger with fish-frying tips, Grant, whose character was called into question once his death made headlines, is humanized. Over the course of the 84-minute film, I came to see his deep complexity which sheds light on the fact that no one is 100% good or bad.
Although I already knew that Grant's life would end tragically and the artfully rendered and skillfully paced scenes of Fruitvale Station implied a nail-biting countdown to his gut-wrenching death, I made the mistake of forgetting to bring plenty of tissue. During the final scenes, my heart sank and I struggled to pacify the emotions that welled up inside me. I tried my best to choke back tears. I heard others in the audience doing the same — more or less gracefully. I shuttered at the thought of how unbelievably quick an enjoyable time spent with loved ones on New Year's Eve could careen violently towards heartbreak and derail in tragedy.
Perhaps my spilling forth of emotion was not merely a response reserved for Grant, but was magnified by the mourning I had been harboring for Trayvon Martin's senseless death too.
The immense sadness I felt during the film was made easy by the dynamic chemistry among the cast members and the stunning acting of Michael B. Jordan whose depiction of Grant entailed such intensity and depth, in one moment sensitive and endearing and in another, fuming and menacing. Jordan's superb acting in the film has drummed up Oscar nomination buzz and confirmed for me why I was fond of his portrayal of the character Wallace in the popular series The Wire.
Fruitvale Station serves as another lens for examining race relations in the U.S. Similarly to the Trayvon Martin tragedy and its aftermath, it confronts its audience with the harsh reality that as a nation with a legacy of slavery and racial inequality, we still have not arrived at a "post-racial society," delivered from our deep-seated personal and institutionalized racial biases.
**Rated R. Nationwide release 7/26/13. Contains some violence, profanity throughout and some drug use. 84 minutes.
In addition to Fruitvale Station, I recommend checking out Ryan Coogler's student film, Locks.