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Sunday, December 29, 2013

DVD Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is an excellent film based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was shot and killed at the Fruitvale BART station early on New Year’s Day, 2009. The film opens with footage of the incident shot by a witness with a cell phone. That footage ends with the gunshot, and our initial response is shock and anger.

But Fruitvale Station isn’t so much about that incident as it about Oscar Grant as a person, a person with good qualities as well as troubles, just like anyone else. And therein lies the film’s real power. After all, we know what’s coming, we know where it’s all leading, so that is often in the back of our mind as we watch the ordinary events in the man’s life. And perhaps I shouldn’t say “ordinary,” for this is nothing dull or routine about what we’re shown, though it is the course of his day. Basically we’re shown the seemingly normal events of one’s day as important, even powerful, partly because we know that this life will end soon. In that way, the film shows us how important the details of our lives really are, how important our relationships are.

We meet a man who is trying to put his life back together. In the first scene, which takes place early in the morning of December 31, 2008, we see Oscar arguing with his girlfriend Sophina. She has apparently caught him with another woman, and he’s trying to let her know that is all over, that all he wants is her and their daughter Tatiana, forever. And we believe him. And we want her to believe him as well. And that is due in large part to Michael B. Jordan’s incredible performance as Oscar.

The entire cast is quite strong. Melonie Diaz (Be Kind Rewind, Hamlet 2) plays Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. It’s clear from both Melonie and Michael’s performances that their relationship is what gives Michael the strength and the drive to change, to put things right. The other important person in his life is his mother, played by Octavia Spencer (who won an Oscar for her performance in The Help). She is particularly good in the flashback scene at the prison when she visits her son.

The film does have a documentary feel, which of course completely works for the subject, and gives the film a quiet intensity and immediacy. The film steps away from that feel just a bit with its one unusual element – whenever Oscar uses his cell phone, we see the phone’s screen over part of the action. For example, in the first scene, when he sends a text message to his mother, we see it typed out on the left side of the screen over Sophina and Tatiana: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” A little later when he calls his mother, we see the cell phone as it scrolls through the M names and calls MOM. To get to MOM, he scrolled past several other names, including MARCUS. So then later when he calls Marcus, we’re already familiar with the name (and perhaps even expecting this call to be important).

And of course everything is leading to the incident at the station, a scene that is more heart-breaking than infuriating. By the way, there is a fantastic shot of Sophina as she watches the ambulance drive away. The camera is behind her, so we are right there with her, watching helplessly (and hopefully) just as she does.

Bonus Features

The DVD includes two bonus features. The first is Fruitvale Station: The Story Of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two-minute feature about both the film and the person and story who inspired it. There are interviews with writer/director Ryan Coogler (who talks about making the film about love rather than anger) and producer Forest Whitaker, and with cast members Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz. There is also footage of the film’s receptions at Sundance and Cannes.

The second bonus feature is footage of a Q&A with the filmmakers and cast, which was shot in Oakland on July 12, 2013. The panel includes Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Forest Whitaker and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi. This Q&A is approximately twenty-eight minutes.

Fruitvale Station was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, and is scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 14, 2014 through Anchor Bay. 

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