MRR Review: "Fruitvale Station"

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The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
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MRR Review: "Fruitvale Station"

-- Rating: R (some violence, language throughout, some drug use)
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2013
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Genre: Biography/Drama

Plenty of films start off with a shooting, but few start off with cellphone footage of a real-life shooting like "Fruitvale Station" does. It's a shocking start to a film that is equal parts hopeful, tragic, and bittersweet as it recounts the final hours of young African American Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) before he is gunned down just after midnight on New Year's Day by a white cop. It's a real-life tale that captured the imagination of a nation and renewed talk of race relations and just how far the country has to go despite how far it has come.

Grant is from a tough neighborhood and has had more than his fair share of run-ins with the police. Ever since the birth of his young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), he has been trying to have a life outside of the crime and drugs he grew up around. He bickers a lot with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), but he hopes one day to marry her and have more children, which is why he got a job at a local grocery store. He loses his job but is too afraid to say anything to Sophina for fear of starting another fight. This is a far cry from the tough life he used to live, and his worried but proud mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), encourages him to keep striving for the family life he is trying to build.

On New Year's Eve in 2008, Grant and a few of his buddies decided to party and ring in the new year in nearby San Francisco. They fatefully took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and found themselves at Fruitvale Station around two in the morning. BART officers detained Grant and several others on suspicion of fighting, and one of the police officers shot Grant in the back, puncturing his lung and wounding him so badly that he would die seven hours later in a nearby hospital. Several people in the train and on the station platform witnessed the incident, and some recorded it with their phones, which is where the footage at the beginning of the film comes from.

Tackling a story based on true events, especially one so tragic, is not an easy project for a film director. This is especially true when the director is making his feature-film debut, which is the case with Ryan Coogler. He wrote the screenplay for "Fruitvale Station" and serves as its director, which is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a rookie. Fortunately for everyone involved, Coogler shows that he is more than capable of helming a film based on a police case that was so controversial when it happened. Even though the police officer who shot Grant did go to jail for his crime, the incident remains a hot-button issue for many people. Because of this notoriety, Coogler could have easily penned the script with more controversy and hype in mind, but he didn't. Instead, he pays homage to an innocent young man who was desperately looking for the silver lining in every cloud.

Jordan is already known to viewers of the critically acclaimed television show "Friday Night Lights," but has only had bit roles beyond that. "Fruitvale Station" could be the star turn he needs to catapult his career to the next level. The final day of Grant's life was fairly mundane by most standards and shows a wandering, aimless man looking for an opportunity to improve his life. Although the last twelve hours of his life were uneventful before the shooting, Jordan gives Grant and his actions that day a quiet dignity that makes his death feel all the more tragic. No matter how jaded audience members might feel by the violence they see onscreen daily, it would be surprising to find any dry eyes in the house after Jordan reenacts Grant's last breaths.

In Hollywood, risky films are fairly rare. Studio executives prefer to give the green light to films they think have a built-in audience or a greater chance to recoup costs. With millions of dollars and countless jobs on the line, it is hard to blame them for their caution. Thankfully, the industry has risk takers like Coogler who want to tell a story even if it doesn't guarantee them a fat paycheck. After a well-received run at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, "Fruitvale Station" is getting a limited theatrical release, and Coogler will have a chance to see if his risk will pay off financially. Even if the film doesn't make millions, Coogler has a bright future as long as he is willing to continue to take those gutsy risks that Hollywood desperately needs.

Rating: 3 out of 5