If George Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal hadn’t happened no one would’ve noticed Fruitvale Station when it was released into theatres. It would’ve come and gone, a mind-blowing performance from Michael B Jordan that might’ve gotten noticed come prestige season notwithstanding, with little fanfare and minimal box office returns. It would be the film that you saw on DVD when Michael B Jordan’s career went into supernova, the little seen performance that finds its audience years after the fact. Jordan showed he had talent in Friday Night Lights, and was terrific in Chronicle, but this is a performance that lets you know he should be the next big talent in Hollywood.
Fruitvale Station, on the other hand, isn’t that good of a film. It’s pretty awful, actually. But the only reason why it’s even in the national focus is the Zimmerman trial causing a lot of deep conversation about the nature of police and race relations, among others.
The film follows the real life death of Oscar Grant. Grant died New Year’s Day 2009 at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer after coming back from San Francisco to his native Oakland. Grant, an ex-con trying to get his life back together, left behind a family and the controversy came when the officer behind the shooting didn’t get the necessary conviction many thought he deserved. The film follows Grant’s last day on Earth documentary style as he goes through the final acts before his death.
We see him trying to be a better father, and man, while struggling to avoid the temptations of dealing drugs. This is similar to how Goodfellas followed Henry Hill on the day before he was arrested the final time on drug charges and Coogler provides a near singular focus on Grant in the final 24 hours of his life. And Jordan is amazing in the part.
Jordan has always had everything you want in a movie star; he has charisma, presence and loads of talent. He just never was given a part juicy enough to really showcase all of it and this is that film. Jordan is magnetic in this film, bringing a necessary layer of complexity to Grant. Softened to make him more sympathetic, one imagines, Grant is caught between two worlds and can’t figure out which one he wants to exist in.
On the one hand dealing drugs is easy and he’s proven himself to be unable to hold down a regular job. We see him genuinely struggle as he wanders Oakland with a large bag of drugs stuffed into his waistband, knowing that the easy thing to do would be to sell them to survive for another month. The rent is due and people are counting on him, including his daughter and girlfriend. On the other hand he wants to be the type of man everyone wants him to be; we see moments where this potential to do good things comes out. The choice between the hard road and the easy one play into him and Jordan is masterful at showing us this conflict. This is an unexpected gift of a performance at an unexpected time in his career; he could walk away from acting with this performance as its peak.
Unfortunately this isn’t a film that deserves to have such a genuine, nuanced and powerful performance. Coogler doesn’t have much material to work with, as the film has a 90 minute running time, and manages to have an extraordinarily slow pace to the proceedings. This is a film designed to focus on the mundane until the big moment of Grant’s death, which followed BART police stopping the train he was on due to a reported fight. The slow pace is meant to accelerate into the chaotic final moments of his death, of which the cell phone video viewed worldwide is included, and give it a sense of the profound.
It just doesn’t work, pure and simple, as the pace is so agonizingly slow and the film so haphazardly put together that by the time the final moments of Grant’s life come around it’s nothing but dull. The emotional impact isn’t quite there because Coogler doesn’t give us anything in particular to really care about that Grant. Jordan is brilliant in making Grant a fully realized character, and his death means something, but the film does so little in establishing it that it’s up to Jordan to carry this film on his shoulders.
In the long run of things Ryan Coogler has brought out a significant performance in Michael B Jordan and contributed nothing else to Fruitvale Station.
Writer / Director: Ryan Coogler Notable Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.