Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland “there’s no there there”. Fruitvale Station begs to differ. The movie from first-time director Ryan Coogler tells the story of an Oakland man restrained by BART police and then shot in the ensuing scuffle. This happened back in 2009 and it’s been a piece of the city’s identity ever since. Coogler’s movie is partly a portrait of Oakland as he follows his main character around town, unfolding his day and his neighborhood with the warm grainy glow that only filmstock can afford.
But the genius of Fruitvale Station is that it’s not preoccupied with the particular. This isn’t a biopic. It isn’t the politically charged cause celebre you might expect. Of course, you can’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s shooting as the movie unfolds, but what you’re thinking of isn’t the controversy or the legal proceedings or the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal. What you’re thinking of is the incontrovertible fact of a life needlessly lost. The pervasive sense in Fruitvale Station is sadness. Not anger. Not outrage. Not indignation or a call to action to fight the power. This is a heartachingly simple story about something that shouldn’t have happened, but did.
Fruitvale Station reminds me of Paul Greengrass’ first movie, Bloody Sunday, as a careful chronicle of mounting dread. It reminds me of John Singleton’s first movie, Boyz n the Hood, as a story of people whose stories aren’t often told. It reminds me of Taxi Driver in that it’s directed with a keen eye and acted with stunningly powerful insight into a fascinating frustrated character pulled between two worlds, struggling to make a decision, a victim of his own nature rather than society. In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan is nothing short of a revelation. The way anger and frustration play across his face and twist his mouth, the deep pools of his eyes, his transition to studied easy charm, the way he crumbles into a ball of vulnerability opposite his girlfriend, fiercely played by Melanie Diaz. If I see another scene this year as good as the prison visit with Octavia Spencer as his mother, it will be a very good year indeed.
Fruitvale Station opened last week in select cities.