By Imani Ford
As he picks up a blunt and takes a long drag, Oscar turns to his girlfriend Sophina and says, “I want you and Ti-Ti forever.” Twenty-two year old Oscar Grant, the focus of the critically acclaimed Sundance winner “Fruitvale Station,” is not perfect—far from it. In one of the first scenes, for instance, we find out—even as he professes his love for both Sophina and his daughter Ti-Ti—that Oscar has cheated.
This initially negative portrayal of Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, may alarm certain audience members; within the first 10 minutes, the film begins to paint another stereotypical caricature of African-American communities. But while certain characteristics of Oscar fit the stereotype, far more defy common expectations—allowing viewers to see him as a real person and to realize that the injustice he eventually suffers could happen to anyone. It’s just one of the many ways in which this brilliant film excels.
“Fruitvale Station” was released at a sensitive time. With the Trayvon Martin verdict only a month behind us, the film raises similar questions in our society. Oscar is killed in a scuffle by a white cop who later received a relatively lenient sentence. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, skillfully tells the story of Oscar on his last day.
Coogler humanizes Oscar before our eyes. Very early in the movie, Oscar’s respect for his mother, played by Octavia Davis, becomes obvious, endearing him to the audience. In many ways, the film accurately displays the strength of the matriarch within the African-American community and other aspects of black culture. Numerous stereotypes are unraveled, squashing anyone’s urge to show the characters in a single light.
Indeed, Coogler makes the film real for viewers by making the characters more than their stereotypes. All the characters simultaneously embody and defy their stereotypes. Oscar, for example, continually attempts to “get straight,” even when he gets knocked down multiple times.
On numerous occasions, audience members witness Oscar’s kindness. Oscar assists strangers—even though they seem skeptical of his kindness. He cares deeply for his daughter and mother, and cries when he witnesses a stray dog dying. No one can doubt that Oscar and his family are good-hearted people, or that they are flawed—as all human beings are.
The first scene shows Oscar’s death. Nevertheless, the suspense is tangible throughout the entire movie. Oscar’s life is hard but not without joy, and this bittersweet feeling makes it harder to see him go.
Audience members are even more invested in Oscar’s life as a result of the angles at which we see Oscar. The camerawork places viewers in the movie as if they are with Oscar on his last day. When he walks, the camera follows him from behind. When he talks, we see his face as if we are speaking to him. When he cradles the dying dog, the audience members are watching him from above. Coogler and his team transform the 85-minute film into a powerful journey.
Just as impressive as the camera angles and touching imagery is the work of Jordan. A skillful and beguiling actor, this is possibly his best work. Jordan has not appeared in a starring role since the hit show “Friday Night Lights,” and his return to the field as Oscar does not disappoint.
When the movie ends, multiple emotions are likely to be running through the viewer’s head—awareness, confusion, sadness and hopelessness. The beauty of the movie makes you hope that people will see it, and that they will see the truth. A movie with ups and downs, it is the best showcase of urban California life since “Boyz N the Hood.” Given recent events, the movie is even more thought-provoking.
Go see “Fruitvale Station” because it is raw and it is real. This movie will cause you to cry—and that is okay. If anything, “Fruitvale Station” exists to make you feel, and those movies are always the best ones.