Here is another installment of my class reviews. As a writer sometimes it’s hard to wrestle with word limits and they do tend to crop up. I felt like I had so much to say about Fruitvale Station, but I’m also learning the valuable lesson of concision.
In 2009, a young black man was shot by a police officer in the midst of arrest. The event was captured by witnesses’ camera phones, and is a staggering reminder of the continued presence of racial based violence. Four years later, writer/director Ryan Coogler brought Oscar Grant’s story to the big screen with his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013).
Coogler’s sense for visuals adds poignancy to the film’s social commentary so that it not only speaks to its audience but demands to be heard. The film opens with footage from the 2009 shooting, and Coogler quickly establishes the casual nature of violence within Oscar’s life. Some moments are subtle, such as the pit bull run over in the street. Other moments are overt, like the flashback where Oscar’s eye is bruised and he is easily provoked by the taunts of another inmate. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is compassionate and heartbroken by the dog’s violent end, yet defiant and barely contained in prison. Fruitvale’s Oscar is not a perfect man but he is compelling as he strives to avoid conflict at every turn.
The cast is remarkably well suited to the message of this film. As a tough maternal figure Octavia Spencer is at her most powerful when she tells the nurse all Oscar wanted was to be loved. Michael B Jordan can say more with his eyes than most young actors can manage with dialogue. Actors Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray—Officers Caruso and Ingram—are interesting choices for the violent, white officers. Durand is oftentimes plays the dumb brute and Murray the fumbling, pretty boy. Their roles in Fruitvale fit their respective molds, perhaps adding yet another layer of commentary on stereotypes to the film.
The brilliance of the Fruitvale Station lies in the editing to keep the tension rising in a story where the audience already knows the ending. Claudia Castillo and Michael P. Shawver prevent the audience from seeing the act of violence; instead they use clever cuts and sound. For example, the potent sound of a whirring train appears throughout the film and is layered under more mundane noises like running water. The power of violence and the film itself is then in our minds.