Film review: FRUITVALE STATION, from Built For Speed

Fruitvale station, which won this year’s Best First Film prize at Cannes, represents a successful and very promising debut for director Ryan Coogler.

Fruitvale Station dramatises the events surrounding the tragic death of 22 year-old African American man Oscar Grant (Michael B Jordan) on New Year’s Day 2009. While celebrating the New Year with friends, Oscar became involved in a fight at the Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART station known as Fruitvale Station.  After Oscar was arrested by transit police the situation escalated with a disastrous outcome.  Despite the devastating events that took place, this is neither a true crime film nor a police procedural; instead, Fruitvale Station attempts to tell us who Oscar was.

With accumulating dread the film depicts the final day of Oscar’s life as he goes about activities that vary from mundane, like buying birthday cards to selling marijuana.  In capturing Oscar’s world, the film adopts two distinct and contrasting styles.  On one hand director Coogler employs an unsensational Cinema verite technique which, in conjunction with effectively placed hip hop music, gives the depiction of Oscar’s final days a grittiness and verisimilitude.  On the other hand, the film immerses us in the zeitgeist of rapid fire communications and smart phones with Oscar’s texts appearing on screen like captions and the final tragic event captured by hundreds of people on phone cameras.

In a superbly understated performance, Michael B Jordan believably portrays Oscar as a sympathetic yet heavily flawed and contradictory person; Oscar dotes wonderfully on his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) but becomes disturbingly aggressive with his former boss when he won’t give him his job back.   Most of all, though, Jordan convincingly depicts Grant as a troubled young guy trying to both atone for his irresponsible past and re-establish his life.  Among a fine supporting cast Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend Sophia deliver powerful and moving performances.

Unfortunately, though, the film occasionallyfalters.  The recreation of the arrest at Fruitvale Station is excessively melodramatic with the leading police officer (Kevin Durand) unconvincing and almost a caricature of an  over-the-top white supremacist.  Also, the film occasionally tugs a little too obviously on the heart strings with its use of children and at one point Oscar rescuing an injured dog.

For the most part, though, the emotions of sadness and rage that this film generates are powerful and utterly real as we witness the still-destructive impact of racial division and stereotyping in the 21st Century.

Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Ryan Coogler.

Release date: 7th Nov 2013.

Running time: 85 mins.


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