Fruitvale Station Review

I just came back from viewing the new movie Fruitvale Station and I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts while it’s fresh in my mind. First of all I saw it in the middle of the day at a small art house theater within a gigantic cineplex where it was tucked away in the back.  We probably didn’t have to leave a popcorn trail to find our way back, but I did anyway. There was only one other couple in the theater with us. In short it wasn’t the type of movie that Hollywood has rallied around and didn’t have much media push behind it. It is an excellent movie nonetheless.  Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer (black Academy Award nominees) are listed as producers and it was probably because of any clout they have that the film was made at all. You wish more black Hollywood insiders would find a way to have these small movies made.

The movie itself is the story of 22 year old Oscar Grant whose “murder” at the hands of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police set off protests in Oakland back in 2009. The first 75 minutes or so is spent establishing his life by tracing his last  day. To its credit the movie doesn’t whitewash the immaturity and bad decisions that Oscar continues to make.  However the movie also shows the acts of kindness towards strangers, his love for his daughter, his mother and his long suffering girlfriend, and his attempts to do better as well as the charm that makes him beloved among his friends. A chance meeting with a white fellow whose early life in some ways mirrors Oscar’s gives us a glimpse of how else it could have been. The movie humanizes and rounds out the black youth stereotypes that assail us and shows the obstacles he faces in living a better life. This could have been a heavy slog, but the movie is enlivened by scenes of family love and interaction as these people steal moments of happiness while enduring their circumstances.  The scenes of friends or family horseplay have an unexpected energy and shows the common decency that buoys their lives. The film demonstrates the humanity they share with others.  All this is juxtaposed against the intense final 15 minutes in which many of the strands of his life come together in a devastating way.

There are excellent performances by Michael B. Jordan (young “veteran” of the Wire and Friday Night Lights)  as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as his long suffering but loyal girlfriend, and especially Octavia Spencer as his mother. The director is a graduate of University of Southern California’s film school.  Although he has been bitten by the handheld camera disease, he does know where to place the camera and to draw Academy award worthy performances from his actors. It is not that I have sympathy for the devil here, but I wish there was more about the poor training, nervousness and racial profiling that led to BART police’s final actions. They were also victims as well as dispensers of  American racism but that seems to be beyond the movie’s scope.

All in all an excellent depiction of a slice of life rarely examined on the screen and a brilliant film.

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