Besides ‘Escape from Tomorrow‘, the other hot ticket at Sundance this year was a little movie in the U.S. Dramatic Competition called ‘Fruitvale’. It’s the cinematic equivalent of getting punched in the gut. I defy you not to shed a tear or two while watching it.
Based on the true story of Oscar Grant, ‘Fruitvale’ depicts a life that was tragically cut short for dubious reasons. The movie opens with some pixelated cell phone video footage of police officers detaining a few African American men on the BART train platform in Fruitvale, Oakland. The officers appear to be using unnecessary force to subdue the men. The yelling and fighting builds, a gunshot rings out, and the screen goes black.
Oscar Grant was shot by a police officer early in the morning on New Year’s Day 2009. He was heading home from a night out with his friends to see his daughter. He would never see his daughter again. Grant’s story has become synonymous with the fight against police brutality. But this movie isn’t about that movement. It’s about the kind of person Oscar was.
‘Fruitvale’ paints the portrait of a man trying to change his ways. Oscar is prone to alpha-male reactions when anyone encroaches on his life. He berates his ex-boss for letting him go, even though it was his own fault for being late in the first place. He gets into a pointless argument with a prison inmate because of a few callously placed insults. His inability to back off from a confrontation seems to be his downfall.
Oscar tries to change, however. He throws away his last stash of pot because he’s sick of dealing drugs to pay the bills. He genuinely loves his daughter and wants to be a better person for her. He’s cheated on his girlfriend, but swears to her that he’ll never do it again. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is believable in his earnestness. Deep underneath that tough inner-city exterior is a caring guy. He helps a dog that gets hit by a careless driver. He offers to help a woman at the grocery store who doesn’t have a clue how to fry fish. He loves his mom and grandmother like any good boy should.
There wasn’t a Q&A after the screening, so I have no idea if writer/director Ryan Coogler embellished Oscar’s last day, making him look more heroic than he should. However, I don’t have any problem accepting what’s on screen. Coogler has pieced together the last moments of Oscar’s life in an emotion-filled movie that had just about everyone in the theater sobbing by the time it ended.
The feeling of impending dread in the movie is almost unbearable. Even though we know what happens, we don’t want to believe it. Oscar is changing his ways and he really, truly loves his daughter. How can something so heinous happen to someone trying desperately to change his situation? It’s almost like the entire world conspired against Oscar in those last 24 hours. Nothing went right, and witnessing it is heartbreaking.
Once the credits rolled on ‘Fruitvale’, an eerie silence fell over the theater, like the audience was afraid to get up and leave. Coogler’s film is so powerful that I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I sat for a minute, stunned. My wife gently wiped tears from her eyes. We were deeply touched.
[Note: 'Fruitvale' won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.]