This review was originally published on January 28, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Based on true events, "Fruitvale Station" sets the stage for a tragic shooting in Oakland, CA, with footage from the actual incident, taken on camera phones by concerned strangers and friends. We watch the event, which took place on New Year's Day 2009, building to its terrible conclusion: four black men cuffed and forced to sit on the ground by police officers at a BART station, words and actions spiraling out of control and then, out of nowhere, a gunshot.
"Fruitvale Station," which was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us back to the day before the shooting, and introduces to shooting victim Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young man who has had some difficulties in the past but is trying to stay on the straight and narrow for the benefit of his longtime girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). We're lead through the normal everyday activities in the life of this young family: preparing for the day ahead, taking their daughter to school, Oscar dropping off Sophina at work and preparing for a birthday celebration later with Oscar's mother (Octavia Spencer).
Through flashbacks we learn that Oscar has spent some time in prison, and while they're by no means wealthy, Oscar is attempting to keep away from his old drug-dealing ways, in order to be there for his family, and we sense Oscar's desperation but also his sense of honor and desire to do the right thing. By the time New Year's Eve rolls around and Sophina, Oscar and friends head into the city, we're all too aware of what's about to transpire, sitting in dread as we wait for the Fruitvale train stop and the shooting that will change the lives of the Grant family forever.
The performances are spare and unforgiving; Michael B. Jordan has flourished from a fantastic child actor in TV's "The Wire," to a talented adult in his own right with stints on TV shows "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood," and in last year's surprise sci-fi hit "Chronicle." A nuanced and complicated role like this places Jordan in a different range than he was before, and shows off his acting chops as a leading man. Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer hasn't let up either. Her portrayal of Oscar's long-suffering and unconditionally loving mother is warm, funny and moving. Melonie Diaz, as Oscar's longtime girlfriend, is a perfect counterpoint to Oscar's attempts to be the fun dad and earn their daughter's trust and love again. The actors are so warm and inviting that at several points we slip comfortably into forgetting what is still to come, and simply enjoy their quiet moments of happiness and joy at being together.
The shooting we saw play out in real time at the beginning of the film looms over every moment, even as we forget or deny it. It's truly remarkable how much prejudice can slip into our assessment of facts, how much bias can control our thoughts and distract us from discovering the truth of a matter. The footage at the beginning of the film casts a dark cloud over the rest of the film, never far from our thoughts. Documentary scenes from this year are included at the end of the film, showing that members of the community have rallied around the Grant shooting, and that those responsible have stepped down and been reprimanded, though we are still keenly aware of the inadequacy of such measures.
Those who have been immersed in the case from the get-go may have alternative views on the accuracy of the events in question, but as a portrait of a person, "Fruitvale" does not dismiss or disguise Grant's failings, instead attempting to strike a steady balance. The film is a reminder that as far as we've come, there's still miles to go in our search for justice and equality for all.
Heartbreaking, compelling and entirely devastating, "Fruitvale Station" puts a face to a senseless event, a crime that cut short a life that was filled with promise, and it does so remarkably well. The film is filled with the stuff of life — humor, joy and plenty of it at times, the closeness of family, but also the financial pressures of the working poor in America and the despair that comes when a young person is killed. "Fruitvale" is outstanding, a telling portrait and testament to the life of one man and the complicated relationships to race and class that still exist within America today.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10
"Fruitvale" won the US Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at Sundance, as well as the Audience Award for Dramatic Film.