In the first moments of "Fruitvale Station" we see pixelated, cell phone video of a group of men being detained and threatened by security officers at a subway station in Oakland. It's the first few moments of the New Year, 2009. Then we hear a gunshot.
For the rest of the film we back up 24 hours and follow a young man, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), through his day. It hasn't been a great year. Oscar recently got out of jail and lost his job at the supermarket. He got caught cheating on his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and he hasn't been around for his 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Sophina has resolved to give up carbs. She says, if you just do it for 30 days it becomes a habit-according to Oprah. Oscar resolves to stop selling marijuana.
Each insignificant triviality of the day builds upon the next, foreshadowing the event we know will come and deepening our understanding of a complex man in the hours before his death.
Debuting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film, much of "Fruitvale Station's" success comes from rich performances and captivating cinematography.
Michael B. Jordan proved his merits as an actor early on in HBO's revolutionary television series "The Wire," where he played a young drug dealer with a conscience. Jordan's face is thoughtful, and there's always something going on behind his humble eyes. No matter what bad things Oscar may do we are sympathetic, because he wants to be good. Jordan has a rare talent. Let's hope he will continue to pursue intelligent scripts and meaningful performances.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison uses the vernacular of reality, natural-looking lighting and Steadicam photography, in a way that is nothing short of poetic. The depth of field is shallow and the framing is frequently close up, drawing us into the inner world of the characters. Selective use of slow motion signifies important moments without drawing too much attention to itself.
Much of the drama we see in the movie and on television deals with justice. Human nature makes us long to understand our volatile existence. This is one reason the Treyvon Martin shooting and the trial of George Zimmerman is prominent in the news: We want the assurance of knowing how this happened, who was at fault, and how justice will be served. But we rarely have the opportunity to sit in the theatre and ponder the fragility and incomprehensibility of life itself. Writer and director Ryan Coogler's first feature-length film does just this by giving us a naturalistic look at one insignificant, but meaningful, day in a life.