“Fruitvale Station” is not just the name of the movie, it’s the actual Bay Area Transit Station (BART) where the murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant took place on New Year’s Day 2009. Grant was heading home to Oakland after a night of partying in San Francisco when a scuffle on the train led transit police to respond. What happened next, recorded by riders on the stopped train, shocked witnesses and the entire Bay Area. While Grant’s killer, a BART office was tried and convicted, he ultimately served just two years.
African-American director Ryan Coogler, 27, also a Bay Area resident, was one of the people stunned by Grant’s murder and his film details the last day in Grant’s life. It’s a nuanced, lean portrait of an imperfect man striving to do better, whose future was denied by an unnecessary application of deadly force. The film has received accolades including the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the “Prize of the Future” award at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Fruitvale Station” opened in limited release last week, but expands to theaters nationwide this weekend. Here are five reasons you should make it part of your weekend plans.
1. RYAN COOGLER
Like John Singleton and Spike Lee before him, Coogler has made an impressive first feature that has Hollywood hailing him the next big thing. He’s just signed on to direct “Creed” the seventh film in the “Rocky” series and apparently not to continue along the cheesy path of the last few. Jordan is also attached which means that the two will continue their already fertile creative partnership. Black directors are still much too rare in Hollywood and if this new crop of auteurs like Coogler and Ava Duvernay are what’s next, we’re very happy.
2. MICHAEL B. JORDAN
You know him from “The Wire,” where he played the doomed Wallace and from “Friday Night Lights,” “All My Children,” and “Parenthood” but “Fruitvale Station” is Jordan’s breakout film. As Grant, Jordan, 26, gives just the right amount of vulnerability and bravado as any young man trying to get it together would have. He is in virtually every frame of “Fruitvale Station” and he makes the best of the screen time by offering a portrayal of Grant that is heartbreakingly realistic. Oscar buzz is surrounding him already, although he will face extremely stiff competition this year with Brits Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor coming with not one, but three movies that have “Oscar-worthy” written all over them. Not that we’d mind seeing that historic moment.
3. OCTAVIA SPENCER
The Oscar winner is certainly making up for lost time. She’s been on the Hollywood scene for a good minute but after her award-winning performance in “The Help” she’s experiencing the kind of opportunities that usually go to better-known actresses. She has her agent to thank for “Fruitvale Station,” though, since at first she didn’t think she wanted to play the character of Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother. Fortunately, her agent prevailed. Her portrayal of both a tough and loving mother is the kind that Oscar voters go for and could net her another Supporting Actress nod.
4. TRAYVON MARTIN
Do you love a black man? Then this is the movie you should take one to. Like Trayvon Martin, Grant was murdered based on his complexion, not because he did anything to warrant his death. Cell phone footage of the killing of an unarmed man led to protests in the Bay Area and ultimately his murderer, former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Sadly, though, Mehserle is a free man today. While it may be hard for a black man to watch as it’s a disheartening look at how vulnerable they truly are, it’s worth seeing even if just for the discussion it may generate.
5. SUPPORT A GOOD MOVIE
You know those black movies that launch campaigns to get people to “support black movies” and then you go to the movie and you realize it kinda…sucks? Well, this is not one of those movies. Coogler tells an unsentimental story with a deft hand. Given a different set of circumstances, “Fruitvale Station” could have been an intimate portrait of the struggles of one black man attempting to navigate his relationships and the world despite daunting obstacles. Instead, it’s a portrait of a man, interrupted, and sadly reflects several other similar situations around the country. “Fruitvale Station” stands on its own as compelling filmmaking and is a moving portrait of a man prevented from evolving through circumstances he didn’t anticipate or create.