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Michael Berkowitz Headshot

Fruitvale Station: Next Stop?

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This train, like Oscar Grant's life, stops at Fruitvale Station. But it is on the journey, not at the stop, where the larger issues are met and considered: What does it mean to be young and working class and of color in contemporary American society? What is such life like? Of what value? How tenuously is it lived out and why is it so fragile in so many ways?

The depth, force and ultimate beauty of the movie is its spot on depiction of the all too brief life of its protagonist Oscar Grant.

Sure-handed writer/director Ryan Coogler could have assembled a righteous polemic detailing the shooting of Oscar Grant. He could have staged a forceful indictment of police injustice, rough profiling and excessive force. That would have told a story not unlike the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's recent court case in Florida. It might have delved precisely into the exact mechanics of Grant's death.

As important and useful as that approach could have been, Coogler chose to do something different, perhaps more important. Like a later day "The Bicycle Thief," he chooses to illuminate the larger picture of class in our society. The movie begins and ends with Grant's death: the grainy phone film record and the strident film re-enactment. But the overwhelming work of the movie lies between, in the rich description and interactive detail of the life of Oscar Grant, the life of the working class in early 21st Century America.

Focusing exclusively or even heavily on his death would certainly have obscured larger issues. The wrongful nature of it might have pushed Grant toward the martyrdom that deflects our attention and shrinks our sentiment from the epic wrong to the particular.

Like any kid of his age and circumstance, Oscar Grant's life was both more complex and full than sainthood would bear. The filmmakers show us this complexity of a young man with larger potential but limited choices. He loves his child; but is often an absentee father. He cares deeply for his girl friend, the mother of his child... but he hits on an attractive passerby. He strongly relates to his mother, (stoically played by Octavia Spencer), extended family and close knit circle of friends. He is as open, friendly and helpful to those he meets who are in need, from a pregnant woman to stray dog. But he cannot help himself with as simple a task as showing up on time to work for a job he consequently loses.

Michael B. Jordan does a remarkable job developing Grant's character, at once everyman and particular pawn of specific historical forces. He is as accessible to us as he is to his friends and the incidental folks he interacts with on the street. Spencer as his mother is a good foil for Jordan's Grant. She is his rock, stoic and resigned, but not beyond the pain her son can create. She knows her son is a decent person, but is braced for depredations of a system that is stacked against him.

Her faith in him is rewarded by flashes of promise -- his loyalty to her, his gifts to the family, his dumping his small time marijuana sales to pursue regular, steady work.

Spencer's faith in the film is also noteworthy. The Academy Award winner agreed to act in the film for below scale. She mentored Jordan and the other young actors, generously sharing her time, experiences and resources. She recruited her close friend, the very busy young actress Ahna O'Reilly to play the role of Katie. Finally, when money fell through, she joined fellow Academy Award winner Forest Whittaker as a producer, harvesting her personal contacts to provide financial support for the film.

As the film has picked up notable critical praise and a growing audience, her faith and that of the other cast (including Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand and Ariana Neal) and writer-director Coogler has been vindicated. It remains to be seen, however, what impact this impressive work will have on American class consciousness. Will it be seen as the story of an idiosyncratic injustice that can be cured by tinkering. Or will it provide us with a way to view and change larger social and class relations.