I saw a lot of movies over the summer. While the season had its fair share of spectacular bombs and fanboy successes, there were just as many unexpected surprises. The biggest surprise may be that the defining image of the summer for me didn’t come from a studio tent pole.
In fact, it was the grainy cell phone footage of 22-year-old Oscar Grant being pinned to the ground and shot by a BART police officer in the early hours of 2009.
That is how first time director Ryan Coogler begins his film “Fruitvale Station,” showing people the moment when a real person started to die. This particular view is one the Internet age knows well. YouTube and LiveLeak allow viewers to see all forms of authentic human suffering. Rarely do people think about the victims of the real world violence videos like this showcase.
That is what Coogler set out to do: to show audiences the last day in the life Oscar Grant. After all, who wakes up expecting the day to be their last?
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) certainly didn’t. For a man on his day off, he sure has a lot to do. The majority of the film follows Oscar as he drives his girlfriend Sophina to work and his daughter to school and runs a few errands.
He has to pick up crab for his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday party and try to get his supermarket job back. His former boss rebuffs him, leaving him with no other option than to sell the bag of weed he has stashed in his bedroom. Rent is due on the first, and he has kept his unemployment a secret from everyone in his life.
His day is a series of drives, pit stops, phone calls and text messages, intermingled with the occasional flashback. Coolger really takes his time, giving the audience a chance to get to know Oscar and the people in his life. Jordan plays Oscar with the right amount of personality to make up for the thinly drawn elements of the character. He goes throughout his day trying to convince himself and the world that he has everything under control.
As a young man with trouble telling the truth, even Oscar realizes he will have to face reality eventually. After watching a dog get run over by a car on the way to a drug deal, he elects to face his family head on. He dumps his stash in the ocean and tells Sophina the truth: He wants to be a provider, and he doesn’t want to lie about how he does it anymore.
They celebrate his mother’s birthday, and Oscar and Sophina meet up with friends to take a train up to San Francisco to watch the fireworks. Whatever the next day would bring, they seemed ready to face it.
The audience in the theater, when I saw it, certainly wasn’t ready to face what came next, and they knew what was coming. The staid and simple nature of the first two acts lulled us all into a false sense of security, setting up the sucker punch of the third. I won’t speak to the specifics of the sequence, but it takes what had been a chill-flowing narrative and stabs an adrenaline needle into its chest.
The people sitting next to me cried, swore and some left in disgust. The recreation of the cell phone footage was as visceral as any action sequence I saw over the summer. The payoff, however, couldn’t have been more different. It left me feeling sick and angry. But I guess that’s what it was supposed to do.
As Coolger presents it, Oscar Grant died because of antagonistic behavior and habits that have become engrained in our culture. He died because of enmity between citizens and those tasked to protect and serve.
In the opening frames, Sophina talks about her resolution to cut carbs from her diet, saying that any behavior can be changed into a habit if you commit to it enough. But, as recent events have only made more clear, change is never easy, nor does it come quickly enough.
BY CHARLES CRANE