Powerful debut feature captures the complex humanity of Oscar Grant
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Director Ryan Coogler seeks redemption in “Fruitvale Station”; Rating: R Grade: A
When is a day in the life, not just “a day in the life” of a character? It isn’t when that day happens to be the final day, which is the case of Ryan Coogler’s stunning debut feature “Fruitvale Station.” The film kicks off on New Year’s Eve of 2008, as Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) seeks to atone for a past indiscretion. His girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) derides him for having sex with another woman – what’s she’s really pissed about is that it may not have been the first and only time, just the time he got caught. Grant seethes silently, swallowing his pride, but we get the sense that whether or not it was a one-time situation or not, he’s truly sorry and he means it when he says he wants nothing and no one else other than Sophina and his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He seems resolute, and why not? It’s New Year’s Eve, right?
The film grants us quiet insight and privilege into choice moments with Oscar Grant throughout this day. He sneaks an extra fruit snack to his daughter when he drops her off at day care. He shows affection to a stray dog in the street while pumping gas, only to see the dog run down moments later. He begs a grocery store manager for a second chance after his firing for showing up late, pleading that this opportunity will keep him from slinging drugs on the corner.
We also see him remembering past moments, like a jailhouse exchange with his mother (Octavia Spencer) from just a year prior where he fought with another inmate during the visit and he flips – in the blink of an eye – from an all-consuming rage to the loving mama’s boy who longs for affection and stories about the family. Grant is a young soul caught in limbo with his better angels and his tireless demons engaged in a struggle best described as an intimate love-hate embrace, squeezing each and every drop of life they could from him.
All of which means Grant is a far more complex figure than we’re used to either seeing onscreen or grappling with as an ideological example for media pundits. Conservatives may argue that liberties were taken to soften his rough edges, while liberals may see too much of the drug history and the unbridled anger fashioning him into the stereotypical menace to society. But Coogler and Jordan want us to see and appreciate their portrait of a young man with hope in his eyes and heart for the future.
The most moving aspect of the story – which may indeed have been inserted for dramatic impact – is the notion that throughout this day, Grant, in his conversations with friends and family alike, ends each exchange by letting the other person know that he loves them. He says it freely and often and it should remind us, as we watch, that we constantly hear reports from loved ones after tragic incidents where regrets emerge. “I wish I had told them I loved them more,” is a common refrain and it tends to make us wonder if we express our feelings to those closest to us, as we should. Coogler and Jordan make sure that Grant does, and when he meets his end, as we know he will, there is this one relief that we can take away from it all. Oscar Grant loved and let everyone know it.