FRUITVALE STATION. Starring Michael Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Chad Michael Murray, and Kevin Durand. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated M (Violence, coarse language and drug use). 85 min.
This American film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael Jordan), who was killed by a police bullet fired at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station, in Oakland, California, US. His death occurred in the morning of New Year's Day, 2009. Criminal charges were laid and the Officer in question was jailed.The movie was awarded Best First Film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
The film begins dramatically with archival, live footage of two BART Police Officers beating Oscar on the subway platform of Fruitvale Station shortly before the shot that was fired that ended his life. The film switches immediately to the events that led up to his tragic death, and depicts in detail the life he lived in Oakland among his own community. The film ends with live footage of his grieving daughter, Tatiana.
The Director of the movie (Ryan Coogler) dwells on Oscar's daily routines and actions. He depicts Oscar as an ordinary human being living in Oakland, and shows him as a black youth caught in tragic circumstances. The movie indicates racial provocation in his killing, but racism is not the movie's main thrust.
The film has many special moments. The performance of Michael Jordan is outstanding, as is that of his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). Especially moving is the moment where Wanda, the matriarch of Oscar's black community, prays for Oscar to survive the bullet that pierced his lung. Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), is excellent in her portrayal of the sudden, shocked awareness that Oscar is near to death.
This film is somewhat akin in style to the movies of Ken Loach which typically explore social issues in the UK in a natural and intimate way. It conveys the same realistic attempt to promote insights about the social and human factors that impact on the lives of deserving people.
This film is absorbing to watch as events unfold slowly, and with considerable tension, on the last day of Oscar's life, and its drama is charged emotionally. The taking of Oscar's life was a senseless act and Michael Jordan captures brilliantly the futility of what happened. He plays Oscar as an individual we get to really know and like, and the movie avoids the trap of sentimentalising the events which surrounded him. The hand-held camera work, and the spontaneity of the acting, serve to reinforce the authenticity of what occurred.
One needs to canvass some of the facts in order to come to grips with the interpretation that the film is projecting. All of Oscar's flaws are in the movie, but Coogler argues dramatically that Oscar's humanity transcends them.
Oscar was provoked into a fight on the BART, and was shot in what may or may not have been a racially motivated act. The movie doesn't explore the racial attitudes of the Police Officers involved (acted by Kevin Durand, and Chad Michael Murray), though clearly they used language and acted in ways that were offensive to Oscar and others on the Station. It acknowledges the fact that Oscar had a past criminal conviction, was unemployed, took drugs, and was struggling to find a purpose in life. Rather, it is the humanness of Oscar that Coogler chooses to emphasise. Oscar was a good father, who loved his mother deeply. He was generous to others, liked by his community, devoted to everyone in his family, caring of his girlfriend, and "trying to get back on his feet" and "start afresh".
This is the first feature length film directed by Ryan Coogler, and the first major acting role for Michael Jordan. Because of this movie, much will be expected from both of them in the future.
The film is co-produced by Forest Whitaker. It is acted superbly, directed very movingly with compassion, and is highly compelling.
Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 7th 2013.