Oscar alert: “Fruitvale Station” opens this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Ryan Coogler’s debut film was discovered at Sundance, caused a sensation in Cannes, and premiered last night at the Museum of Modern Art. Coogler is 27 now and made the film when he was 26, a film student at USC. Fruitvale is a metro stop on the BART line in San Francisco. It was there on New Year’s Eve 2009 that unarmed 22 year old Oscar Grant, father of a little girl, was murdered in cold blood by a transit cop.That cop served only 11 months and is now free as a bird.
The movie chronicles the last day of Oscar’s life. Michael B. Jordan, of “Friday Night Lights” fame, plays Oscar, Melonie Diaz is his girlfriend, Sophina, the other of his child. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays his mother. Last night I saw this movie for the second time. I’m not kidding when I tell you these three actors deserve Oscar nominations. They are such powerful, transcendent performances that a time comes during “Fruitvale Station” when you forget they are actors. You become so invested in their characters, their lives, and the nuances of their relationships, that they seem absolutely real.
Obviously, Oscar Grant was killed. So at the end of the screening, my friend blurted out to Michael B. Jordan: “I am so glad to see you alive.” Candice Bergen came with husband Marshall Rose, and her daughter Chloe Malle. They were mesmerized. The wonderful Debra Lee of BET, a sponsor of the film, sat near me. During the screening, you could hear people crying. It’s an emotional movie.
Later, Octavia Spencer told me: “We ran out of money and shut down for two weeks. So I put some money in, and I called around to friends. And we raised what we needed.” Spencer is the kind of person who wins the Academy Award, and it turns out they’re just great and you wonder how filmmakers survived before they came along. She told me didn’t sit through the screening at MoMA. “I’ve seen it twice, that’s enough.”
Coogler, who’s still shocked that he made his movie, is engaged to a beautiful young woman who does sign language interpretation. They live in the Bay Area. They won’t be moving to Hollywood. “Our whole family is there,” she said. “And you should see Ryan. He’s devoted to them.”
What Coogler’s done with “Fruitvale Station” is build a story the old fashioned way. As the story of Oscar Grant’s last day progresses, you get a full picture of what his future might have been. He’d already been in jail, had scrapes over drugs, and lost a job for showing up late. But he’d also had an epiphany: that his life could be improved. He spent his last day making amends, and plans. And the audience knows he’s going to die. Still, you like him so much that by the time his life hangs in the balance, several people said at the after party, “you were hoping he’d make it and it wasn’t true.”
This is just the most important movie of 2013 so far, a must see at all costs, and a real work of art. After all the bloat of summer blockbusters, “Fruitvale Station” is our reward. Don’t squander it.