If you say the name Oscar Grant to most people, they probably won’t know who you are talking about. Some might even think you are talking about the famous eyewear designer, Foster Grant. However, if you say the name Oscar Grant to many African Americans under the age of thirty (or any San Franciscans), you’ll have a pretty good chance of learning more than you ever wanted to know about the young man and what happened to him on the night of December 31, 2008-January 1, 2009.
On that night, an unarmed and handcuffed twenty-two year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed on the Fruitvale Station subway platform by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer after a scuffle during a late night train ride. This excellent film, FRUITVALE STATION, takes its audience on Oscar Grant’s journey during the last 24 hours of his life. His shooting and death are why we ultimately know of Mr. Grant, but this movie also takes this event and uses it to explore and open up Mr. Grant’s life which adds ever more tragedy to the situation. I will not spoil the film by saying that Mr. Grant (as portrayed by the talented newcomer, Michael B. Jordan) was on the verge of redemption and renewal when by chance, he was on the right train at the wrong time.
In his last day, Oscar is revealed to not have been a Saint, but is in fact a much-struggling Sinner involved in some things he shouldn’t be involved in and in a lifestyle leading to nowhere. The fact that this gritty film shows us all these facets and provides such a richly full portrayal of Mr. Grant, his family, his friends, his girlfriend and his daughter makes this an honest film and for me… the best film of 2013 so far.
One of the concerns I had regarding FRUITVALE STATION is that this story would be told in the usual “Ghetto Voyeurism” type of way, especially as the screenplay and production were shepherded by the liberally-focused Sundance Institute. Thankfully, any voyeurism is minimal and those seeking a two-hour ‘hood-holiday will be disappointed. The characterizations and the writing have great tension, yet also hold a poignancy not usually displayed in films working with this kind of material. The key moments and story turns in FRUITVALE STATION all are well-earned and fully legitimate. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays “Wanda” (Oscar’s Mother) and Melonie Diaz as “Sophina” (Oscar’s girlfriend and mother of his child) and both make the simplest of scenes play much bigger as the last hours and minutes of Oscar’s life pass by. They also pull the audience much further into the story than one might expect when the film’s outcome is already known.
FRUITVALE STATION also provides us a window into Oscar’s life and that of many, many Minorities at the lower-end of the economic strata and I hope many American film-goers take advantage of this cinematic opportunity and learn from it. The film makes no political statements, but the inner story it tells surely offers a great insight into the America that we are becoming over time. With more and more Americans trying to just get by and maintain what they have, let alone build a better life… I would argue that this film is one that can help open up a great discussion between all demographics beyond the MSNBC-CNN-FOX NEWS axis. It would especially be good for a lot of suburbanites who drive by cities everyday to see FRUITVALE STATION. If for anything, it is a moving film and one that shows an audience how things can turn on a dime, either for good or for bad. And how often each assumption of human behavior and what is kindness may be skewed by our world view.
Personally, my favorite scene in FRUITVALE STATION is one that takes place in a Fish Market where Oscar formerly worked. It is layered so deeply in contradictory moments leading to a huge payoff later in the film. Yet as sharp-edged as this scene was, it also was a fun one for me to witness as an audience member. The humor in FRUITVALE STATION will make you smile as it helps to build the universality of Oscar Grant’s character and that of the other people in his life. This all directly comes from the superb and well-researched writing by first-time Writer/Director Ryan Coogler, as well as the wonderful cast pouring their heart into their portrayals. It isn’t a film that will change the world, but in the current Media-driven zeitgeist of Zimmerman-Martin… this film shows us a real slice of America. Not one manufactured for higher ratings or political gain or continued social indifference.
The realities leading up to what happened at San Francisco’s Fruitvale Station subway stop on 1/1/2009 may not be our reality, but I think if you see this film – you will come out of it a rewarded film-goer and a wiser American. If you are inclined to wait for it to come to DVD or VOD, don’t pass up the chance to see this film in a theatre with other people. It is a film where being with an audience will be much different film experience than watching it on your couch in your quiet home. Hopefully, FRUITVALE STATION will have the chance to be seen and embraced on its own terms when this likely Oscar-contending film goes nationwide on July 26th (it opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland today).
This article originally appeared in Politisite
About the Author: Kevin Williams directed and produced the documentary feature film FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN after working in a variety of production roles on films such as A BEAUTIFUL MIND, SIGNS, HACK, SURRENDER DOROTHY, LIKE MIKE, I.Q., and JERSEY GIRL. In addition, Kevin served as the Founding Director/Artistic Director of the Trenton Film Festival in Trenton, NJ. He also teaches Documentary and Narrative Filmmaking. He is a proud alum of Tulane University (MBA degree); La Salle University (B.S. degree); and New York University (Certificate in Film).