Review: Fruitvale Station

Black screen, noise and shouting, and when the image comes on, we see a shaky, low quality 4:3 format shocking footage of a chaotic police arrest on a train platform. At 2:15 am, January 1, 2009 – just when people happily heading home after the New Year’s Eve celebration. The 22-year-old Oscar Grant has been shot (dead?) by a panicked transit police in front of a train packed with witnesses video taping the incident from every possible angle. Quickly, the witnesses’ videos are on YouTube, the news, triggering protests and riots around Fruitvale Station in Oakland, San Francisco bay area.

Based on the true event, “Fruitvale Station” received the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2013 and was also selected by Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section 2013. The 27 year old, talented director Ryan Coogler, is an Oakland native filmmaker who was studying at USC when the shooting happened back in his hometown. Coogler wants to tell Oscar Grant’s story to remind the society of the incident and the value of a young black man. The production of Forest Whitaker agreed right away to produce Coogler’s first feature length film and cast Michael B. Jordan from the famous TV series “The Wire”, Melonie Diaz from “Be Kind Rewind” and Oscar Award supporting actress Octavia Spencer from “The Help”, for the film.

There is nothing on why the cop shot Oscar Grant, but the recreation of a struggling young man’s last 24 hours in life makes the audience easily attach to this character. We see Oscar was a charming, generous, good hearted, caring and loving young man with a goofy sense of humor. But in the same time, he was experiencing a job loss, his criminal past and how he decides to drop the drugs selling and trying to get back to a regular life for his 4 year old daughter, his loving girlfriend, mother and his peaceful family. Coogler constructs Oscar’s personality from an easy everyday life and inserts some flashback moments when his mother came to visit him in prison.

Coogler continues the witness’s cell phone video with a documentary naturalism style, handheld camera, to record Oscar’s last day on December 31, 2008, his mother’s birthday. A bright sunny day in the suburbs of Oakland, he drives his daughter Tatiana to kindergarden, drops his girlfriend Sophina off at work, prepares his mother’s birthday, gives a family recipe to a total stranger, encounter with a dog being hit and run by a car and cutting off his drug selling by the shore. The priceless happy time with his daughter and his family, everything seems so effortless but shows how much Oscar wanted to start a new life with the upcoming new year, and how cruel the life is when a man’s life is not respect and when a race is not being treated equally.

Johannes Mehserle, the cop who shot Oscar Grant, claimed that he mistakingly pulled his gun instead of his taser and was sentenced to less than 12 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Since then and every year, Oscar Grant’s family, friends and supporters host a memorial in front of Fruitvale Station, but every year, similar incidents keep happening around the world, for which we should all take the responsibility to prevent.
– Shumaï Chou