Compelling 'Fruitvale' explores racial tension in real-world terms

The Weinstein Company

By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 1, 2013

New Year’s Eve, 2009: Oscar Grant hides a bag of marijuana down his pants before slipping a surprise pack of fruit snacks to his daughter at preschool. He snarls in the face of his former boss, demanding to be re-hired despite his history of lateness. Oscar calls his mother to wish her a happy birthday, promising to buy the clams she wanted. Two white cops force him down on a train platform, and he is fatally shot in the back.

“Fruitvale Station”

The Weinstein Company
Playing at Rave 20

The facts are straightforward and sadly prescient coming off the heels of the Trayvon Martin case: Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, was forced off a train for being involved in a fight and then shot in the back by white Bay Area cops. “Fruitvale Station,” directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan (“Hotel Noir”) as Oscar, gently follows this normal day for the passionate, mercurial and ultimately complex Oscar until his tragic finale.

This is the kind of story looking for a hero. A martyr to rally people of all races behind fighting racial prejudice. Instead, Jordan deftly portrays a complex man, caught between a family he loves and a beguiling lifestyle. The film meanders through Oscar’s last day as if no one knows the ending. The film simply shows a day in the life of an ordinary man, proving not that Oscar is defined by his death, but that his murder is so egregious because of its randomness, the lack of connection it has to Oscar’s character and how he lived his life.

First-time writer and director Coogler, who grew up in the same area as Grant, uses commonplace dialogue and real-life locations to ground the film firmly in reality, avoiding setting Oscar up as a malleable symbol for racial tension in the United States. Oscar is a young man who has a temper, listens to rap, spends time in jail and cheats on the mother of his daughter. He is imperfect. Jordan’s performance is not revelatory; rather, you often forget that he is acting, that he is not really Oscar Grant going about his daily business.

The film ostensibly explores explosive race relations in America, but it spends most of its time quietly examining a mundane day in Oscar’s life. Unfortunately, the audience knows the catch. The emotional meat comes not from Oscar, but the women in his life. Melonie Diaz (“You, Me and the Circus”) and Octavia Spencer (“Smashed”) portray his longtime girlfriend Sophina and mother Wanda as they both deal with the erratic yet winsome Oscar and hours later react with tragic poise as they wade through the confusion and heartbreak that surround his death.

In movies, death is often used as an opportunity to make speeches, to eulogize a person so much they become just a symbol. In “Fruitvale,” Oscar’s death is not the death of an icon, a soon-to-be catalyst for racial change. His friends and family mourn him as a caring son, a jesting brother, a sincere friend, a playful father. The emotion is there, and the connection Coogler feels to this place and these characters is palpable, but the film lets the story tell itself. No preachy narration or abstract artistry is necessary to create anger, because there is infuriating simplicity in a man killed for being the wrong race at the wrong time. “Fruitvale Station” allows us to get to know that man for who he was.