I wonder if you guys have even heard of Fruitvale Station. It’s a movie that opens in select theaters today (and nationwide on July 26th), having already won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, in addition to picking up the award for Best First Film at Cannes and getting some serious Oscar buzz, and yet I’ve only seen one poster for it anywhere in New York. I spotted exactly one advertisement for it at my local subway station, and it’s been radio silence everywhere else.
This, of course, is as opposed to the dozens and dozens of print ads, TV spots, and online buys I’ve seen for money-grubbing sequel machines like Smurfs 2 and The Hangover 3 or problematic blockbusters like Man Of Steel and The Lone Ranger. The first two are and were widely panned by critics, and both of the last two had bloated budgets, were over two hours, and tried to cram the familiar markers of origin stories into their plots in order to trigger nostalgia in their audiences and justify making the movie at all.
In contrast, Fruitvale Station is not even an hour and a half long. It’s an eighty-five minute debut film from Ryan Coogler, who both wrote and directed, it was purchased in a bidding war for a mere $2 million, and most importantly — it’s really goddamn good. It follows the last hours of Oscar Grant (played by the insanely buzzworthy Michael B. Jordan), the twenty-two year old who was killed by transit police at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California in the early hours of New Years Day 2009.
You probably heard about the original event when it happened, but since it was four years ago, here’s a brief refresher for you. Oscar Grant and a group of his friends were returning home from a party in San Francisco when they were pulled off a train, suspected of being involved in a fight. The train was held in the station while the group of young men were cuffed and interrogated by police, allowing many of its passengers to take video on their cell phone of the incident. As the situation escalated, Oscar ended up face down on the floor of the station, hands cuffed behind his back, as one of the arresting officers drew his gun and shot him point blank in the back as people screamed in the cell phone footage. He later died of his injuries.
Fruitvale Station starts twenty-four hours before the shooting that would ultimately result in Oscar Grant’s death, bringing in talents like Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s mother and girlfriend, respectively, to give a rounded out and gently fictionalized account of his last hours. The acting is stellar, the writing is confidently sparse, and the subject matter so simple and bleak that, even though I knew how it would end, I found myself hoping at almost every turn that somehow I’d remembered the facts of history incorrectly and this was a cautionary tale instead of a blatant injustice. It juxtaposes moments of love and friendship with moments of fear and cruelty in a way that paints a full, spectral portrait of Oscar.
Perhaps you’ll find it overly sentimental, and that’s a chance that I think Ryan Coogler was willing to take. But however you feel about it, I can almost guarantee you’ll come home afterwards and immerse yourself in Wikipedia and YouTube for a few hours, trying to wrap your brain around exactly what happened and why. Particularly in light of the current trial examining George Zimmerman’s guilt in the death of Trayvon Martin, this film feels eerily familiar. It struck a chord in me and got me thinking about violence in our society in a way that The Lone Ranger never triggered, although I could tell in those long scenes of Native American carnage that it wanted to.
So if a film can be this effective with a small budget and eighty-five minutes, why are the big studios wasting our time with $250 million blockbusters that fire wildly at so many targets that they miss their audiences altogether? At some point, can we veer away from this trend toward two-and-a-half-hour epics and get back to the kinds of stories that make you come home and think instead of rant on the internet (hi, Facebook)? I’m hoping so.
Back to the movie at hand, it’s been degraded by some critics as fawning over its subject a bit too much, but here’s what I think about that. Was Oscar Grant a perfect person? No, and the movie doesn’t pretend that he was. He’d been in jail, he was in love, he dealt drugs, he had a daughter, he had been fired, he loved his mother, he was unfaithful, he was helpful, he was rarely on time. These are all elements of a larger, unknowable character. While I’m sure some of his harder edges were softened for this portrayal, and some of his finer ones brought to the forefront, in general I feel like the film paints a fair portrait of a young man who fell victim to violence. No fiddling with the drawing of his character would have made his death any less tragic.
Oscar Grant may have been worse than they show, or better, but he should not have died, and that’s the bottom line so clearly and elegantly underlined by Fruitvale Station.