Based on the real-life 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, Ryan Coogler’s feature debut Fruitvale Station (2013) is an uncompromising, original and movingly humane piece of American political cinema. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, who, on New Year’s Eve, has already committed himself to fulfilling his annual resolutions a day in advance. Oscar is going to quit dealing drugs, be more faithful to girlfriend and mother of his child Sophina (Melonie Diaz), be a better father to his daughter, be a kinder son to his doting mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), and is going to take his girl out to see the Bay Area fireworks.
This day-in-the-life tale thus follows Oscar as he performs his various chores; picking up crabs for his grandma’s gumbo, dropping his girlfriend at work and his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), at preschool. But not all is well in Oscar’s world. His sister needs a loan on the rent, he has bad memories of prison and he’s also recently lost his job at the local supermarket. Times are certainly hard, and the temptation to stray from the righteous path is always there, lying in wait. But despite all of this, Oscar holds true to his best intentions, even persuading his friends to get the train for their night out so his mother doesn’t have to worry about him drinking and driving. However, we also know that this is to be Oscar’s final day.
Whether or not the audience knows the true story Fruitvale Station is based upon, we do see an incident filmed on mobile phones at the beginning of the film which adds a sense of foreboding to the proceeding events. When Oscar’s daughter says she’s scared because of the guns (the firecrackers), we can’t dismiss her fears as readily as Oscar. Coogler proves adept at both building tension and letting us forget the imminent tragedy as we get mixed up in the celebrations of New Year, at one point partying on the train as the countdown takes place. Furthermore, Jordan – in a career-making performance – shows us exactly why Oscar is both a tender, hopeful, beloved human being and also a man of menace and occasional violence.
Thanks to Jordan’s powerhouse lead turn, you’ll believe Oscar can befriend dogs and be the a tremendous father, yet reveals a darker side when intimidating his boss. Our protagonist can be flirtatious, loving and threatening (often in the same scene), so powerfully real that the complete human being appears before us – multifaceted, but as a whole. Coogler had originally intended to make a documentary about Grant’s death, but their decision to make this as a narrative film has produced both a testament to their skill and to the young man it succeeds in justifying. Fruitvale Station is an extraordinary debut that will make you angry, upset and glad to be alive.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.