Fruitvale: Sundance Review
Ryan Coogler's compelling debut film is based on the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by police in Oakland.
PARK CITY -- The sort of material that you might more readily expect to be covered in a documentary -- the true story of a senseless police shooting that takes the life of yet another young urban black man -- instead has been made into a powerful dramatic feature film in Fruitvale. First-time writer-director Ryan Coogler, who, at 26, is the same age his subject would have been today, puts the life of Oscar Grant onscreen with conviction that makes it clear why Grant’s killing became a cause celebre and the springboard for massive protests against police brutality in Oakland. The project’s topicality, qualities and the presence of such connected Hollywood figures as producers Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer, the latter of whom plays Grant’s mother, ensure that attention will be paid, and, though commercial prospects are limited, the film certainly will serve as an effective springboard for Coogler, lead actor Michael B. Jordan and others involved.
Raw phone video footage at the outset presents but does not clarify what happened in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009. A few angry young black men are being subdued by cops at the Oakland-area Fruitvale BART rapid transit station. After some scuffling and a lot of shouting, what sounds like a shot is heard, though nothing that’s seen remotely looks to have warranted gunfire.
The film then rewinds several hours to New Year’s Eve, which provides a window into the life of 22-year-old Oscar, who at this point is earnestly trying to pull things together in Hayward after a youth presumably pockmarked by the usual urban ills of gangs, drugs and bad influences. In a smart way, Coogler plays with knee-jerk perceptions; one look at Oscar driving around in his rig might be enough to convince outsiders, and whites in particular, to be wary of this guy -- a paranoid perspective that will rebound with devastating repercussions later when the whites with this attitude turn out to be cops.
Whatever his past transgressions, Oscar is now very much trying to do the right thing by his live-in girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), little daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and mother Wanda (Spencer), a principled, religious woman who knows the score. While trying to get his old job back at a supermarket, he’s generous to a young white customer, Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), whose initial suspicion soon dissolves in response to his warm nature; there’s no way to know that this passing moment will boomerang fatefully later on. Oscar then rejects some easy money by refusing to return to drug dealing.
Another reset in Coogler’s shrewdly structured screenplay jumps back to New Year’s Eve 2007, which finds Oscar being visited in San Quentin by his mother. What landed him there remains unspecified in the film, but the brief interlude reveals that Oscar is having problems with white-supremacist types in prison, another factor that will tragically reassert itself in due time.
Within an hour or so, the film reasonably lays out the fabric of Oscar’s life, with its difficulties and hope and the young man’s fundamentally positive spirit. He might fit an objective profile for a contemporary troublemaker -- young, black, jobless, criminal record, bad neighborhood, unmarried with child, etc. -- and this description is what so easily suits the media, especially in connection with a high-crime area such as Oakland. But digging beneath the surface, at least in this case, reveals a more complex and nuanced story that one presumes and hopes has not been sanitized in the cause of a good movie or in return for family cooperation.
Oscar plans to spend New Year’s Eve 2008 taking his family and pals across the bay to San Francisco to watch the fireworks and celebrate. His mother urges him to take mass transit rather than drive. All goes well in the city, but an altercation starts in the crowded subway car on the way home that draws the attention of police and eventually spills out onto the Fruitvale stop platform, with utterly senseless and tragic results.
Coogler stages the chaos with a breath-shortening combination of frenzy and ambiguity, with the latter providing enough legal wiggle room for the cop to eventually get off with a light sentence, furthering the sense of injustice. It’s an awful tale, fraught with political, social and moral weight symbolic of numerous contemporary ills, and one with an unshown ugly aftermath of violent protests that further sullied Oakland’s reputation.
As Oscar, Jordan at moments gives off vibes of a very young Denzel Washington in the way he combines gentleness and toughness; he effortlessly draws the viewer in toward him. Diaz is vibrant as his patient and loyal girlfriend, while Spencer brings her gravitas to the proceedings as his stalwart mother.
Mostly nondescript East Bay locations are well used in a debut that delivers significant energy and commitment.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Signature Productions
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal
Director-screenwriter: Ryan Coogler
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
Executive producers: Michael Y. Chow, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, John Kwok, Octavia Spencer
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Aggie Rogers
Editors: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia S. Castello
Music: Ludwig Goransson
No rating, 85 minutes