The film opens with a live footage of the incident on New Years in 2009. We see Oscar Grant sitting in the Fruitvale Bart Station arguing with an officer. Their words are drowned by the shouts and cries of onlookers in the subway. Oscar is forced on his back and then shot. It’s very quick and haunting. The opening is unexpected and heavy but a relevant indication that the film would present a story of something more than the logistics of the event that fueled talk, anger, and controversy. Fruitvale presents the character and life of Oscar Grant.
Newcomer director and writer Ryan Coogler portrays and humanizes Oscar and the relationships he had with his loved ones. We are invited into the life of a man who will no longer be with us in the next 24 hours. Coogler creates a highly character driven story full of compassion, struggle, and guilt. He constructs his scenes with sensitivity that illustrates his fine knowledge of the human condition. As a result, we feel a sense of intimacy and familiarity that we grow emotionally attached to the characters.
Oscar (Michael B.Jordan) is 22 years old and a past felon. He keeps his unemployment a secret from family and friends and deals drugs to make ends meet. He tries to rekindle trust with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who is the mother of his 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. The heart of the film lies in Oscar’s relationship with his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), whom he treats with the upmost kindness and respect. Their interaction creates gravity and rawness in the film.
It’s Wanda’s birthday on New Years Eve and Oscar works to make everything right for her. Although he fails to win back his job at the local supermarket, Oscar carries on. He assures Wanda that everything is fine when it really isn’t. He even tells his ex-co-worker that he’ll be back working next week. Oscar doesn’t desire pity or help. He keeps everything to himself, not wanting to burden anyone—only wanting to give. This is one of the striking qualities about Grant. Although he stands amidst the shadows of uncertainty and a looming past, he expresses selflessness towards those that deserve it.
A particular scene that I enjoyed was when Oscar is at the supermarket trying to win back his job and encounters a customer, Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), who is contemplating on what type of fish to purchase for New Years. What seems to be a flirtatious approach turns out to be in fact, simple kindness. He calls his grandma about the fish recipe to put her on the phone with Katie. The scene isn’t much, but the simplicity that it has stirs ethereal. Their exchange portrays the inviting and likeable quality that Oscar has.
From Friday Night Lights and Chronicle, Michael B. Jordan gives a compelling and raw performance as Oscar Grant. He effortlessly portrays charm, vulnerability, and aggression that make him an authentic and intriguing character to watch. Octavia Spencer is the heart and gravity of the film. Especially in the last scenes of the film, she exudes motherly grace and presence that helps keep our emotions intact.
Fruitvale premiered at the recent 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film. Coogler is a USC alumnus, having graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts in 2011. “I never want to shy away from the truth,” he stated in Filmmaker Magazine. And indeed from watching Fruitvale, I can tell that he follows a realistic style in storytelling that encompasses research and personal conversation.
I commend Coogler for creating and maintaining a sense of normalcy in the character of Oscar. By doing this, he universalizes the story of Oscar Grant. Coogler illustrates that every life matters. What happened to Oscar on that New Years morning could have happened to anyone. The film helps you develop a stronger sense of awareness of those around you. David Foster Wallace’s renowned speech, “This is Water,” came to mind. Foster expresses how we have the tendency to become more selective of what we see in our lives because of the “automatic unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world.” We must never overlook but always be more attentive and aware of others.