A day in the life
Tragic film hits its mark
By Tim Pompey 08/08/2013
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use
1 hr. 25 min.
Talk about strange timing. In a summer of big-budget movies overwhelmed by special effects and inane dialogue, Fruitvale Station, a little independent film about the tragic shooting of a black man in a BART train station, hits the theaters.
With little fanfare, Fruitvale competes with the world’s largest studio behemoths and challenges viewers to reconsider a moment in someone’s life that most of us simply glanced past while watching the news. Bold move.
But rest assured, two years before the death of Trayvon Martin, the black community in Oakland and beyond was aware of and angered by the shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART cop while he was boarding a train to go home after a New Year’s Day celebration.
Naturally, you would expect African-American director and Oakland native Ryan Coogler to vent his anger over this incident, but the approach he chooses is so low-key, it’s both surprising and thought-provoking.
What we are struck by is how death can come when we least expect it. Grant’s demise was a quirky event that happened because he was in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But it’s the chain of events that put him in that BART train to begin with that interests Coogler, which means that while Grant’s death is indeed painful to watch, there’s a deeper view here, a philosophical musing that transcends the incident and tackles the haphazard unfairness of life.
Make no mistake. Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was no saint. Having served time in prison, he was a man with a hair-trigger temper who was struggling to straighten out his life. To add insult to injury, he had recently lost his job as a grocery clerk because he was chronically late to work. With his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Cruz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to support, he was desperate to work his way out of a jam.
Oscar, however, was blessed to have his dedicated mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), and his extended family to rely on. And he seemed to genuinely love his girlfriend and daughter. With that as a backdrop, we follow him on his routine errands as he tries to get his old job back, plans a birthday party for his mother, makes plans for New Year’s Eve, and thinks about the road he has traveled.
Most films have a dramatic arc that moves toward a climax. Coogler eschews this approach and keys in on the boring and ordinary. Shopping. Arguing with his girlfriend. Hanging out with friends. It’s truly a day in the life in the most realistic sense, and Coogler is taking a chance that you as the viewer will hang with him, even during the most mundane moments.
What’s remarkable about this approach is that it works, and that is due in large part to the cast. Jordan’s willingness to show Grant’s anger, desperation and tenderness. Spencer’s firm no-nonsense dedication to her son. Diaz’s conflict, fear, and love for her boyfriend. They know their characters and bring them to life.
Add to this, screenwriter Coogler’s sharp ear for his native Oakland dialogue, a black and Hispanic dialect that rings true — from the street talk of Grant’s friends to the chatter at family gatherings. It takes a remarkable writer to translate this to the screen and Coogler seems to know his stuff.
Fruitvale Station is a film that captures both the ordinary and the tragic. When Grant was shot, he was doing nothing more than traveling from point A to point B, and that is perhaps the most unsettling fact about this film, how violence often strikes in the African-American community. Going to a party. Walking to a friend’s house. Coming back from a convenience store.
What seems to haunt Coogler in this film boils down to this one simple question: Why?