Sundance '13: 'Fruitvale' is a Heart-Wrenching Tale of Senseless Tragedy

January 22, 2013


Headlines called attention to the shooting of Oakland man Oscar Grant following an altercation gone awry with some police officers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit train station in the wee hours of the morning on New Year's Day 2009, and riots broke out with accusations of police brutality, racism, and justifiable anger. Now newcomer Ryan Coogler takes the story in his hands as writer and director with Fruitvale, a film developed at the Sundance screenwriting labs with support from the Sundance institute and the result is a true indie film recounting one of the most harrowing tales of a man at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The film opens with voiceover between Oscar (Chronicle star Michael B. Jordan) and Sophina (Melondie Diaz of Be Kind Rewind and Hamlet 2), having a conversation about making some fleeting changes in their life including a diet for Sophina and the end of marijuana sales for Oscar. But this sweet couple moment is followed by disturbing real cell phone footage of the aforementioned train station incident where Oscar Grant was aggressively detained and then needlessly shot by one of the officers on site. It's a bold set up that makes the rest of the film, a day in the life lead-up to this tragedy, that much more bittersweet.

Coogler's aim isn't to make Oscar out to be a martyr or an angel, but his activities on this day definitely make the audience sympathetic to his cause. Oscar is great with his young daughter Tatiana (played adorably by Ariana Neal), he's legitimately getting out of the drug business, trying to get back his job that he lost when he was being irresponsible, having a special birthday dinner for his mother (Octavia Spencer) and this New Year's Eve is marking the turning of a new leaf. It's extremely difficult not to like Oscar after spending the day with him, and that's what makes Fruitvale a truly unforgettable tragedy.


The film is certainly a little heavy handed, but that cell phone footage from the beginning does the trick for audiences, because you believe that Oscar is a real person, and it adds a level of legitimacy to a film that is still dramatized. There's no doubt that some elements are there just for drama's sake. From dumping a bag of weed into the ocean to a farewell to his daughter that seems a little too prolonged and fond when it's just another night for Oscar to leave Tatiana at the babysitter.

But it's the performance by Michael B. Jordan, reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, that truly makes you love Oscar and worry at his dangerous future just hours into New Year's Day. There will be pain in your stomach and tears in your eyes from what unfolds in this true story. In fact, the prologue that brings us back to the real world with news footage of protests that followed and information about the officer responsible for this senseless act of violence almost cheapens the more substantial and impactful story that already speaks for itself loudly and clearly.

Is Fruitvale a little melodramatic? Absolutely. But supporting cast members like Octavia Spencer keep the film at a level of quality that doesn't get diminished by that aspect. It also helps that the film was shot in the area where all this happened. Coogler makes a statement that wouldn't feel out of place in a Spike Lee movie, but where the Do the Right Thing director would get flashy and bombastic, Coogler stays grounded, gritty and mostly level. The director says his whole life helped him prepare for this movie, and the care he takes with Oscar and his whole family makes that clear. Fruitvale is a powerful reminder of the mistakes we still make as individuals because of the skewed principles of our society. Ryan Coogler has crafted an agonizing and provoking story of one man's struggle to get his life on track and the tragedy that cut it short.

Ethan's Sundance Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Find more posts: Review, Sundance 13



That's a heavy clip. If it wasn't captured on film though, it would have been business as usual.

Carpola on Jan 22, 2013


I disagree, I enjoyed the film and thought it was well made but thought that Michael B. Jordan's performance was the weak link. His poor acting was embarrassing to watch.

Joe on Jan 24, 2013


Ethan Anderton, what are the "skewed principles of our society"?

Larry Holmgren on Jan 25, 2013


Prevalent racism (even after having slavery and civil rights debate in our pas), especially in law enforcement officials. The idea that to protect and serve means aggressive violence and behavior when no immediate threat is posed to officials in question. No, it's not all law enforcement, but the fact that this is even an issue in this day and age is frightening and shows that our society still places inherent value and respect in the color of people's skin.

Ethan Anderton on Jan 26, 2013

5 read the Judge's statement about the facts in the case, race was not a factor in this tragedy.

bgal4 on Jan 28, 2013


A court cannot determine whether or not race was a factor in the mind of these police officers.

Ethan Anderton on Jan 28, 2013


Absolutely false,and incredibly naive, but I guess a film industry hack is in the best position to determine motive and guilt. Fear of mob violence was on the minds of the police officers and the passengers who called for help, which is supported by both the evidence and testimony in court.

bgal4 on Jan 28, 2013


Tell'em Ethan!!!!

jah p on Jan 28, 2013


Senseless Tragedy??? Try AVOIDABLE tragedy, Oscar Grant III had all the power to "Do the RIGHT thing". As was typical of his character, he did not.

bgal4 on Jan 26, 2013


Yes, it would have been avoidable if the law enforcement officials had been more responsible and not had a predilection for being aggressive with African American males in that part of town. No one is saying Oscar Grant III is an angel, in fact I talked about that in my review, but yes, this is still a senseless tragedy.

Ethan Anderton on Jan 26, 2013


Grant and his crew created the chaotic,aggressive environment. The police were summoned to the station by passengers threatened by Grant's aggressive behavior. Clearly you are not local, BART transit cops do not ride the trains, they have to drive between stations when a call for service comes in. We need to be safe on public transit, safe in our neighborhoods, people like Grant, with a history of using illegal weapons, 5 arrests, two prison terms before the age of 22 should not be made into martyrs. This shooting was an accident not police brutality. The cop who shot Grant had just finished responding to an incident at west Oakland station, a teen with a gun. He drove a few miles between stations and was only on scene a few minutes prior to the shooting. Shame on Hollywood limousine liberals. It is a senseless tragedy when stray bullets hit innocent people. It is not a senseless tragedy when gang members kill each other, we can understand what happened, make sense of it. Passengers afraid for their safety called police for assistance, Grant was out of control fighting on the train, then he made things worse by resisting arrest. The cop meant to tase Grant, he made an grave error, and is very remorseful about it. You are a movie critic, at least try and do an objective job, this is a one-sided tale ( hardly an honest retelling) with a political purpose, otherwise the family would not have sanctioned it.

bgal4 on Jan 27, 2013


So, there are not better ways to handle "fighting" on a train? Let's see ...just show up shooting...ask questions later. Some people are just pathetic. And of course...excuses are always necessary.

chocolatecitycom on Jan 27, 2013


Speaking of senseless tragedy and avoidable tragedy...Do you realize Charles Mason is still alive....racist people can never contain their foolishness...I see. people fighting on train...since when did police showing up shooting...become the answer for that? stfu

chocolatecitycom on Jan 27, 2013


A cousin of Oscar Grant who was shot and wounded by Oakland police investigating a holdup was convicted Thursday of robbery. Tony Jones, 25, was shot once in the back by Officer Cesar Garcia on the 2000 block of 62nd Avenue the night of Feb. 19, 2012, after he ran from a van that police had stopped. Shortly before the shooting, Jones and an unidentified man robbed a man at gunpoint outside a liquor store, prosecutors said. Police said Garcia had opened fire because Jones turned toward the officer while holding a handgun. An Alameda County jury convicted Jones of robbery and a weapons charge. He faces 17 years and eight months in prison when he is sentenced March 14. Jones filed a $10 million federal civil rights suit against the city, saying he had been unarmed and "threatened no one." Attorneys in the civil case agreed to put the litigation on hold pending the outcome of the criminal prosecution. Jones' mother is an aunt of Grant, the 22-year-old Hayward man who was unarmed when he was shot in the back and killed by then-BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle early New Year's Day 2009. Grant was one of several men whom police had pulled off a train at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland in connection with an onboard fight. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a jury rejected a charge of murder.

bgal4 on Feb 1, 2013

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