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Film Review: ‘Fruitvale Station’

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Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant

Fruitvale Station will not make many people’s lists as the feelgood film of the summer – it’s a semi-fictional account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the troubled young black man who was mortally wounded by a transit police officer on an Oakland BART platform in 2009. Director Ryan Coogler’s debut movie opens with actual grainy cell phone footage, taken by bystanders, of the chaotic moments leading to Grant’s shooting after a melee had erupted on a train full of New Year’s Eve revelers.

Yet the story remains a powerfully optimistic work that shows Grant (Michael B. Jordan), in his last day alive, coming to terms with his criminal past as a small-time drug dealer. We watch as he tries to move his life in a new direction and become a better husband and father. And, despite Grant’s recurring moments of explosive personal confrontations, Coogler’s film knows when to pull back and take a restrained, almost objective look at race relations. (With a bit of grim timing, it was released two weeks after the trial of Trayvon Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman.)

Fruitvale Station also takes an unsparing look at the Sisyphean task that low-income people of color face when they try to obtain and keep the kind of decent-paying jobs that allow parents to raise families – early on in the film Grant loses his job at an Oakland market, setting in motion the fateful incidents that both redeem him and lead him to his death.

This is a low-budget movie filmed in Super 16 (as opposed to the standard 35mm format), yet it has a crisp look to it. Coogler, who befriended the Grant family during production, shot his locations where Grant’s story took place, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s bright skies and clean streets create a visual counterpoint to the grinding economic and emotional hardships confronting Oscar, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Fruitvale Station is an impressive first feature for Coogler and an especially powerful vehicle for Jordan, who portrays his character as a complex figure who wants to make the right decisions in life but who seems to always be undone by himself. It’s a star turn for an actor just beginning his career, and Jordan’s onscreen charm and beguiling charisma make comparisons with the young Denzel Washington inevitable. But the film’s biggest achievement is its refusal to let Grant become another sad statistic.

(Fruitvale Station is running at select Laemmle theaters.)

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