When I went and saw Black Panther two weekends ago, I didn’t have any real intention of going back and reviewing any of director Ryan Coogler’s previous filmography. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to, just because I didn’t have the time. Flash forward to just a few days ago when my girlfriend and I were looking for something to watch and I thought about Fruitvale Station. She really liked Black Panther, so I decided to show her Fruitvale Station, Coogler’s directorial debut. Watching this film again (for about the fourth time), I continue to be utterly impressed and shaken by Fruitvale Station. For this to be Coogler’s debut film is the ultimate calling card. I felt compelled to review this movie.
Fruitvale Station takes place over the course of 24 hours and tells the tragic and (unfortunately) true life story of Oscar Grant III (played by Michael B. Jordan) and the events that led him to be present at Fruitvale Station on that fateful New Year’s Day, 2009.
Fruitvale Station has been called a fable of sorts for modern America and that is an apt description. Oscar Grant navigates his day going from various event to various event, each one giving him a different task or a different emotion to overcome or experience. Some of the events have him facing a moral dilemma or a foreboding warning of the future. Station tells a story of a man at a crossroads who is looking to better himself as a boyfriend, a son, and as a father. Grant is not a perfect person, but no matter what his faults are, Coogler presents him as a good-natured person stuck in an unfortunate situation that so many other people are also stuck in.
Michael B. Jordan was riding off a high left by Josh Trank’s Chronicle into Fruitvale Station playing Oscar Grant. As good as Coogler’s storytelling is, if Jordan doesn’t work as Grant, then the movie won’t work. Jordan plays all the different intricacies of Grant to perfection: the loveable fatherly side, the lover, and the angry youngster. Jordan is sympathetic, likable and believable. Michael B. Jordan manages to bring out every day and likable quality to a complex character who is forced to make some tough decisions. Michael B. Jordan should have been nominated for an Oscar for this role and I’m still surprised that he isn’t in more movies since this.
Ryan Coogler adopts a minimalist style for Fruitvale Station as he navigates Grant’s life. There is a lot of conversation and things happening, but not a lot of big events. There are no big plot twists or complicated subplots; the feeling of authenticity is there as the movie looks at everyday life. Coogler knows he doesn’t need to fill the movie with a lot of plot because he needs to get you into the characters’ lives and get you invested in that as much as possible. Tightly, he winds the supporting players in Grant’s life into his story (led by two incredible female actresses and performances in Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz). While you may think the movie drags here and there, by the end of the movie you’ll realize that you’re glad you spent that time with Grant’s family and life because it makes the end all the more impactful.
I won’t spoil the end of the movie for those that don’t know how the real-life story ends (I feel like there is still a sizeable portion of people that haven’t seen the movie), but the emotional potency of the ending cannot be understated. No matter how matter times I watch this movie and think I’m prepared for the ending, I still cry and get a twisting feeling in my stomach.
As emotionally charged as the ending is, I think Fruitvale Station tells a more optimistic story then maybe you might initially realize. This isn’t just a dark drab movie looking to suck your soul out; there is a beautiful quality to the movie as well, the story of a man capturing life within a single day. Coogler wisely never resorts to demonizing people. Even the “antagonists” of the movie still get a look or two of the humanity of their faces. This is a wonderful sign of maturity on Coogler’s part as a filmmaker.
When I first saw Fruitvale Station I loved it, but I wasn’t sure if it was a movie I could revisit and watch again. I’ve seen it several more times since its release and it never loses its power. Fruitvale Station is an outstanding and emotionally charged debut film from Coogler. Whether this movie drags in a few places here and there doesn’t matter too much. By the end, I think you’ll find that you will completely forget about those issues and simply embrace this as a beautiful but tragic story of an everyday human being and the lives that he touched. Michael B. Jordan was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this movie (not to mention the entire movie was). With Black Panther being an enormous touchstone of pop culture at the very moment, there is really no better time to treat yourself to this incredible film.