Directors: Debuts Brilliant–Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler makes a striking feature directing debut with the real-life based drama, Fruitvale Station, reconstructing a poignant event of interracial hostility and ruthless police violence.

The movie, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, has the distinction of winning the Dramatic Jury as well as the Audience Award, which speaks well for its commercial prospects, when it is released by the Weinstein Company on July 12, as counter-programming to summer’s top guns.

While told in a conventional mode (it feels like a first effort), the narrative is anything but conventional, evoking a sense of anger and righteous outrage at the senseless death of its protagonist, Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Oakland resident who, early on New Year’s Day in 2009, was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer despite being harmless and unarmed.

The events we see on screen are condensed into the last two days of Grant, leading to the brutal crime and eventual death. The director should be commended for maintaining a consistent point of view that looks at reality from Grant’s subjective perspective.

As played energetically by Michael B. Jordan, Grant comes across as good-natured guy with a bad history and even worse luck. He had done jail time for a drug-related offense, but then vowed to become a better, more responsible father to his four-year-old daughter, and a more responsive partner for her sympathetic mother and his companion, Sophina (Melonie Diaz).

Remarkably, the movie doesn’t sentimentalize or glorifies him. Grant is seen cheating on the loyal Sophina, caught lying to her about his unemployment, deceiving his mother about his whereabouts, and violating other norms and laws. But essentially, he is a warmhearted, hot-blooded Afro-American who wants to do good but is pulled down by his inner demons and socio-economic conditions.

The best scenes depict Grant spending time with his relatively stable and comforting family, presided by his matriarchal mother (Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for “The Help”) and his grandmother (Marjorie Crump-Shears).

As writer, Coogler could have done more of the fact that Oscar was always surrounded by women-—of various kinds and ages.

Modest in scale and decent in ambition, the movie goes out of its way to be respectful of-—not to sensationalize—any of the characters and their actions, showing in detail the more intimate devastation wrought by his death.

In terms of plot, the main event is his mother’s birthday, which just happens to fall on the fateful day and night of December 31, 2008. Crossing paths with friends, family, and strangers, Oscar Grant starts out well, but as the day goes on, he realizes that change is not going to come easily.

His resolve takes a tragic turn, however, when BART officers shoot him in cold blood at the Fruitvale subway stop on New Year’s Day, after arresting him and his chums while aboard the BART.

We often hear, read, and watch police brutality in the news media, and yet the depiction of a promising life unjustly ended is absolutely riveting and shocking, particularly because it’s so senseless.  At the end, title cards inform that the officer (white, of course) was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Made for less than $1 million, “Fruitvale Station” shows how and why Oscar’s senseless, tragic death shook the Bay Area–and the entire country–to their very core.

Giving a good name to American Independent Cinema, it’s the kind of feature that should be presented in and honored by the Sundance Film Festival.

Director Ryan Coogler, a graduate of USC Film School, got financial backing from a Chinese investor and private producers, including Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

Critical and Commercial Hit

July 26, 2013 as counterprogramming, the Sundance indie was greeted with critical praise (according to Rotten Tomatoes, it has 94 percent of approval) and scored commercially with a gross of $16.1 million at the box-office, a huge success vis a vis its $1 million budget. January 14, 2014.

 

Cast

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant

Octavia L. Spencer as Wanda

Melonie Diaz as Sophina

Kevin Durand as Officer Caruso

Ahna O’Reilly as Katie

Chad Michael Murray as Officer Ingram

Ariana Neal as Tatiana

Keenan Coogler as Cato

Trestin George as Brandon

Joey Oglesby as Cal

Marjorie Shears as Grandma Bonnie