Sundance ’13: ‘Fruitvale’ is a Heart-Wrenching Tale of Senseless Tragedy
by Ethan Anderton
January 22, 2013
Headlines called attention to the shooting of Oakland man Oscar Grant following an altercation gone awry with some police officers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit train station in the wee hours of the morning on New Year’s Day 2009, and riots broke out with accusations of police brutality, racism, and justifiable anger. Now newcomer Ryan Coogler takes the story in his hands as writer and director with Fruitvale, a film developed at the Sundance screenwriting labs with support from the Sundance institute and the result is a true indie film recounting one of the most harrowing tales of a man at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The film opens with voiceover between Oscar (Chronicle star Michael B. Jordan) and Sophina (Melondie Diaz of Be Kind Rewind and Hamlet 2), having a conversation about making some fleeting changes in their life including a diet for Sophina and the end of marijuana sales for Oscar. But this sweet couple moment is followed by disturbing real cell phone footage of the aforementioned train station incident where Oscar Grant was aggressively detained and then needlessly shot by one of the officers on site. It’s a bold set up that makes the rest of the film, a day in the life lead-up to this tragedy, that much more bittersweet.
Coogler’s aim isn’t to make Oscar out to be a martyr or an angel, but his activities on this day definitely make the audience sympathetic to his cause. Oscar is great with his young daughter Tatiana (played adorably by Ariana Neal), he’s legitimately getting out of the drug business, trying to get back his job that he lost when he was being irresponsible, having a special birthday dinner for his mother (Octavia Spencer) and this New Year’s Eve is marking the turning of a new leaf. It’s extremely difficult not to like Oscar after spending the day with him, and that’s what makes Fruitvale a truly unforgettable tragedy.
The film is certainly a little heavy handed, but that cell phone footage from the beginning does the trick for audiences, because you believe that Oscar is a real person, and it adds a level of legitimacy to a film that is still dramatized. There’s no doubt that some elements are there just for drama’s sake. From dumping a bag of weed into the ocean to a farewell to his daughter that seems a little too prolonged and fond when it’s just another night for Oscar to leave Tatiana at the babysitter.
But it’s the performance by Michael B. Jordan, reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, that truly makes you love Oscar and worry at his dangerous future just hours into New Year’s Day. There will be pain in your stomach and tears in your eyes from what unfolds in this true story. In fact, the prologue that brings us back to the real world with news footage of protests that followed and information about the officer responsible for this senseless act of violence almost cheapens the more substantial and impactful story that already speaks for itself loudly and clearly.
Is Fruitvale a little melodramatic? Absolutely. But supporting cast members like Octavia Spencer keep the film at a level of quality that doesn’t get diminished by that aspect. It also helps that the film was shot in the area where all this happened. Coogler makes a statement that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spike Lee movie, but where the Do the Right Thing director would get flashy and bombastic, Coogler stays grounded, gritty and mostly level. The director says his whole life helped him prepare for this movie, and the care he takes with Oscar and his whole family makes that clear. Fruitvale is a powerful reminder of the mistakes we still make as individuals because of the skewed principles of our society. Ryan Coogler has crafted an agonizing and provoking story of one man’s struggle to get his life on track and the tragedy that cut it short.
Ethan’s Sundance Rating: 8.5 out of 10