Following a sparse amount of opening credits a grainy shaky image that is obviously from a camera phone appears on screen. In frame, the open doors of a transit train, the train platform with four black youths sitting against the concrete wall of the station with several cops standing in front of them. One attempts to stand, he is handcuffed then pushed back down on his stomach. A scuffle ensues followed by the sound of a gun shot, screams on the train car, yelling then train speeds out of the station.
Next we meet Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz) it's the morning of New Year's Eve 2008. The couple is in a dispute about Oscar's fidelity. Their conversation turns to Oscar's mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) birthday that evening and their four-year-old daughter Tatiana. The pair gets Tatiana off to school then Sophia to work. The viewer is now alone with Oscar as he plans the rest of his day.
First time writer Director Ryan Coogler delivers an excellent script. The audience is along for the ride with Oscar as he makes his stops around Oakland. At each location we learn a little more about Oscar as his character significantly grows and develops. We start at his job at the supermarket where he's picking up food for his mother's party. Oscar goes out of his way to help a young woman who is hopelessly lost as she tries to prepare a special meal for her boyfriend. He shows even more compassion helping a wounded animal while filling up at a gas station and the attention and care he takes with his daughter Tatiana is admirable. We also see the other side of Oscar mainly through flashbacks. He has made some choices in the past that have not been positive. He can be stubborn, angry, has enemies and is often confrontational.
Eventually the Grant's make it to his mother's birthday party. As he's helping is mother with the post meal dishes she suggests that Oscar and his friends take the train to see the fireworks in order to be safe and avoid the possibility of drinking and driving. The group agrees to take the BART system into San Francisco later that night. As midnight approaches the spirit on the train is jubilant as different segments of the Oakland community share laughs, drinks and songs as they head across the Bay to celebrate the start of 2009.
Coogler uses cell phone calls and texts to move the story along. Oscar's text messages often flash up on screen throughout the film. He has a funny exchange with his sister who has to work and can't make the party. She gives him specific instructions on the card she wants him to by for her mother which prompts Oscar to do the complete opposite. Another superb conversation occurs when his mother realizes that he is driving while talking to her on the phone. Oscar insists that he is using a hands free devise and proceeds to tuck the phone under his lid before he continues the call.
The soundtrack features several ay area hip-hop artists that provide the background as Oscar visits different venues throughout the day. The choice of music sets the tone for the gritty East Bay. Among the artist are The Jacka, Cellski & Pezzy and Mac Dre. The director's brother Noah Coogler is featured on another track Rubber Band.
On the way back to Oakland Oscar charms a local restaurateur into allowing a bathroom break for the ladies in their group that leads to a chance encounter and a potential new job opportunity. Oscar runs into the woman he helped at the supermarket that morning on the train. An old rival hears their exchange sparking a beef that sets the events in motion towards the tragic event at that is at the core of the film.
Michael B. Jordan is outstanding in his first lead movie role. He is on screen for just about every frame of the feature and handles it with ease. Octavia Spencer, who has a producer credit for the film as his mother Wanda is particularly strong. Her work shines in two specific scenes in the film that are linked by a particular act. In the first she doesn't want to do it and in the second she's compelled to. Melonie Diaz is also strong Sophia the sometimes questioning but fiercely loyal girlfriend and young mother.
Coogler has crafted a well-paced drama that could have made an impressive documentary. The chapters fit and each scene is essential to the story. The cell phone video that opens the film is actual footage of the New Year's Day 2009 event. Be sure to stay for the entire credits as more real footage is presented to bookend the films opening. Fruitvale Station is a film that I can definitely recommend and is destined to be on many top ten lists at year's end.
**** out of 4.
Fruitvale Station | Ryan Coogler | U.S.A. | 2013 | 85 Minutes.
Tags: Oscar Grant, New Year's Eve , BART, East Bay, Oakland , Police Shooting, Court Case, Protest, Vigil, Anniversary,