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Karen Datangel is a writer, blogger, social media addict, entertainment enthusiast, baseball/football fan (Go SF Giants and 49ers!), animal lover, nerdy and nostalgic fangirl, city wanderer, and a dreamer. Born, bred, and based in the Bay Area, Karen graduated with a degree in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Her resume includes contributions to and internships with Hollywood Life, CAAMFest (Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), Audrey Magazine, Bustle, Fandom, SheKnows, and POPSUGAR. She currently works on the Developer Marketing team at Salesforce. Follow her on Twitter @DatKaren.

‘Fruitvale Station’ is Gutwrenching Cinematic Take on Real-Life Drama

Michael B. Jordan (second from left) portrays Oscar Grant, the man shot by a BART police officer in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day 2009 in the critically-acclaimed drama ‘Fruitvale Station.’ (photo credit: The Weinstein Company)

The news headlines come in every day—some trivial, some celebratory, some groundbreaking, some shocking, some devastating—and every now and then comes a story that especially ignites massive outrage and calls for change and justice. The year 2009 started off with one of these stories, with a 22-year-old man named Oscar Grant at the center. Oscar and some of his friends were traveling on public transit from San Francisco in the early part of New Year’s Day when BART police officers received reports of a fight on the train. Oscar and a few other passengers were detained at Fruitvale station in Oakland. Lying face down as officers restrained him and allegedly resisting arrest, the young man was shot in the back. According to witnesses, Officer Johannes Mehserle said that he would tase Oscar, but had drawn his gun. Oscar Grant passed on the next morning.

Cell phone video of the incident was soon broadcast on local Bay Area news and eventually made its way across the Internet. It is the same actual raw footage that opens Fruitvale Station, setting the table of dreaded anticipation inevitably leading back to that moment. Everyone will come in to this darkly subtle film, already carrying a heavy heart knowing how it ends. As each event unravels on screen, there’s only more punches to be taken where it hurts. The 24-hour journey with Oscar gives the audience a tragic realization of how he might be if he were still alive today, or how that fateful night might’ve never happened at all.

Of course, like many fact-based films, there are some events and characters that are products of an imagination, only to kick in more spark for the sake of movie magic. Oscar didn’t befriend a stray dog nor assist a random woman named Katie on New Year’s Eve, but the plot devices showcase one facet of his being—as a kind stranger. In real life, we know for sure that he was a son, brother, grandson, nephew, father, boyfriend, and friend. Somebody lost him in those senses and Fruitvale Station as a narrative makes us feel that impact deeply.

The duration of the story told in Fruitvale Station only lasts a day (or two or three, if you count the aftermath and flashbacks), but opens the door wide open to Oscar’s entire life, relationships, and character in that timeframe. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) begins New Year’s Eve 2008 in an argument with his live-in girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who gives him an earful about him cheating on her. Despite the strain, he openly expresses his desire to be more honest and a better partner, as well as a better father to their four-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). As Oscar goes about the last day of 2008, which also happens to be his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, he encounters more hurdles in his existing struggle to better himself. Simultaneously, he presents himself warmly to people he meets only for the first time, including Katie (Ahna O’Reilly) at the supermarket he works at.

While the film could’ve done without at least one filler scene, director/writer Ryan Coogler—in his feature film debut—effectively orchestrates a lively series of events to its tragic conclusion, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to showcasing a strong and complex lead character. Fruitvale Station doesn’t glorify Oscar Grant as a saint. In the film, he flat-out lies to those close to him. He made bad choices, and a pivotal flashback scene shows he had a temper that affected both his mother and others around him. Rather, Coogler inserting those scenes, those lines and also opening the curtain to the braver and tougher choices Oscar made shows that his lead character was a compelling human being, growing so much in the span of one day and learning from mistakes and holding hope for a future that never came.

Acting out this powerful story and recreating the New Year’s Day horror and its consequences is a tough task, but the spectacular cast deserves every honor and ounce of praise that comes to them. Jordan, best known for roles in TV’s Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, has already earned a crown for breakout film performance of the year. He can play sweet and playful one moment when he meets someone like Katie, go from desperate and dangerous when confronting his boss, and then put on that sweet and playful demeanor again the next minute. No matter how big, small, good, or bad the situation is, Jordan puts so much passion into the character and he doesn’t have to try. Sometimes his quietness is intense enough and in his more obviously intense scenes, he’s a heartbreaker. As a couple of the main ladies in Oscar’s life, Diaz and Spencer are at different levels of the Hollywood spectrum—one is another young star making a mark with her performance in this film, the other is an Academy Award-winning veteran continuing to build a masterful filmography. Both of their talents are special ingredients, so rawly expressing the conflicted emotions, loving nature, and anguish as they explore and come to realize what Oscar has meant to them.

In addition to using real-life footage as bookends, authenticity is presented through the filming locations. The actual BART stations and trains give a haunting ambiance, and other locations throughout Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro hit even closer to home, as they are all connected to the real Oscar Grant and that New Year’s night. Handheld camera-style cinematography gives this fact-based drama an intimate documentary-like feel.

In the actual universe, Oscar Grant’s legacy continues to inspire movements for social change. Whether or not viewers also feel inspired to take part, Fruitvale Station certainly holds a core message that everyone can agree with: No matter where someone is from and no matter what they’ve done, all life is precious and everyone has a story worth telling. Fruitvale Station—with its outstanding cast and impressive direction and script—shows that people are more than victims. The media may focus on other parts of the saga, but through the art of cinema, more will realize that Oscar Grant’s story is more than meets the eye, and it’s important to gain exposure in this light.

KAREN’S RATING: A-

‘Fruitvale Station’ opens in theaters nationwide July 26.

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3 Comments on “‘Fruitvale Station’ is Gutwrenching Cinematic Take on Real-Life Drama”

  1. CMrok93 July 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    Nice review Karen. It has a heart and emotion that’s only heightened because of the past couple of weeks. However, the story itself is as heartbreaking as you’re going to get this whole year.

    • Karen Datangel July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      Thanks for commenting – appreciate the compliment! You are right: The Oscar Grant story has a lot of parallels to the Trayvon Martin story, which has drawn a lot of attention in recent weeks. It may hold a lot more meaning now because of it but I think even if the two events (The film release and the George Zimmerman trial verdict) didn’t simultaneously happen, Fruitvale Station would still be a film that would hit people hard. I live in the Bay Area, so the movie especially hit close to home since the story has truly been timeless here. It’s a tragic situation but I am glad that this film was made and released for a wide audience to know more about the story.

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  1. Robert’s Top 10 Films of 2013 | The Hudsucker - December 30, 2013

    […] (Read Karen’s review of Fruitvale Station here.) […]

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