If you don't see another movie this year, make sure you catch "Fruitvale Station," the independent film by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler. After you've watched it, you'll never trash talk "Generation Y" directors again.
"Fruitvale" is just as good as--and maybe better than--the first features made by Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Cassavetes and any number of independent, young filmmakers of earlier generations. Certainly it's more moving.
The film tells the true story of the killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed, young black man who was shot by a San Francisco transit officer, as he lay face-down on a subway platform on New Years Day in 2008.
Director Coogler was a black man of the very same age, a USC film student, home for the holidays and working security at a Frisco rave club, the night it happened. As soon as he heard the news and saw the cellphone videos on the Internet, he realized it could easily have happened to him or one of his friends.
He also knew he was the right man at the right time to make this movie. Coogler wrote a script, managed to enlist the support of Forest Whitaker as producer, and the rest is history.
"Fruitvale Station" recreates the last 24 hours of Oscar's life with a vérité realism that feels documentary, even as the story builds like a classical drama. Brilliantly played by Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire"), Oscar is an explosive mix of tenderness and fury. He adores the women in his life-his mother (an appealing but pragmatic Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend Sophina (the excellent Melonie Diaz), and their five-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal)--and he wants to please them all.
But that's a tall order for a 22-year old who's already done time in prison and recently lost his job at the local grocery store.
A calendar hangs on Oscar's kitchen wall: the date rent is due is circled in black marker. Early in the day, he goes shopping to buy food for his mother's birthday. Then his sister calls to ask if she can borrow a couple hundred dollars, and he doesn't have the heart to say no. Given the situation, you don't need higher math to figure out what the guy's gotta do.
Lots of movies have been made about racism and injustice. Usually they're produced by well-intentioned white folks, for an equally well-intentioned, mostly white audience, which gets sentimentally caught up in questions of good and evil. A black man, who--surprise!--turns out to be a good person, is mistreated by a group of horrendously bad white people. The frisson comes from the flipping of expectations. And we get to cry at the end.
Writing about "Fruitvale," most of the critics--99% of whom are white like me--couldn't help speculating about whether Oscar Grant had finally gotten himself on the right path, just before he was gunned down. Was he going to go straight? Or would he have fallen back into a life of crime?
But what makes this movie so powerful and disturbing is our quietly dawning realization that the right path simply isn't open to Oscar, much as he and everyone else would like to think it is.
In one unforgettable scene, he jams a bag of weed down his pants and drives to meet a connection. Waiting for the deal to come down, he sits by himself on some rocks and stares out at the bay. He's remembering his time behind bars, and it wasn't pretty. Although he can be sweet and tender, Oscar's a brooder with a hair-trigger temper, and he can give as good as he gets. The camera moves in close, so we can see the emotions surging across his face. I've never seen another actor suggest such torment without uttering a word.
Much has been written about Oscar Grant's tragic death and about the numbers of young black men lost to gun violence every year. But watching Oscar beg his old boss at the grocery store for his job back, it struck me that a man's life can be more humiliating than his death and that a person rendered jobless and unable to support himself is the greatest tragedy of all.
"Fruitvale Station" doesn't flinch as it looks this greatest of tragedies straight in the eye. It's a beautiful, thoughtful movie and one you won't forget. Here's hoping Coogler will make many more in the years to come.