January 26, 2013



There can’t be very much quibbling about the selection of Ryan Coogler’s very impressive debut film FRUITVALE as tonight’s winner of both the Sundance Dramatic Competition Jury Prize and the Audience Award.   (Personally I might have gone with Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes–which didn’t win anything tonight–but Fruitvale would have been close behind.)  Coogler, who wrote the film as well as directed it, has a fresh take on what could have been a by-the-numbers piece of social commentary, and delivers a bang-up job of filmmaking as well.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a 22-year old man named Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) was fatally shot by a transit officer at the Fruitvale station of the San Francisco BART line after a brief altercation on one of the trains.  (The cop, who claimed he’d mistakenly shot Oscar with his gun rather than his taser, was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to 18 months in jail.)  Rather than dwell on the injustice of the shooting and its treatment in the courts, Coogler chooses, after a brief prologue that shows the actual camera-phone footage of the killing, to dramatize Oscar’s last day leading up to that fatal ride, and in doing so, he conveys a convincing portrait of the man’s entire life.

Oscar was no saint.  He had sold weed, had cheated on his longterm girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) with whom he had a daughter, had been in jail and generally broken the heart of his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).  Shortly before the holidays, he was fired from his legitimate job at a supermarket for habitually coming in late.  But he was trying to turn his life around, getting rid of his dope and attempting to do right by his girlfriend, daughter and mother.  Would he have stuck to the straight and narrow had he lived? Fruitvale shows us the real tragedy is that with his life brutally cut off, we’ll never know.

From a dramatic point of view, the advantage of Coogler’s approach is that rather than being weighed down by impending death, Fruitvale is very much a movie about a vibrant, if difficult, life filled with strong ties to friends and relatives, about a man who could bond with complete strangers a minute after making their acquaintance.  The story is set on a holiday, and features as much joy as sadness.

Coogler’s work is extremely assured for a first-time filmmaker.  Working with cinematographer Rachel Morrison (whose credits include Sound of My Voice), he goes in the opposite direction from most “urban” dramas.  Lengthy scenes are presented with little cutting, and there’s a minimum of cliched hand-held camerawork, allowing what could have felt like a piece of emotional manipulation to instead have a rounded, natural feel.

Coogler also gets great work from his actors.  It will come as no surprise to viewers of The Wire,  Friday Night Lights and Parenthood that Michael B. Jordan is a leading man with great range and charisma, but it’s satisfying to see him able to hold the big screen as well as the small.  Spencer and Diaz are heartbreaking as the women in Oscar’s life, and even small roles, played mostly by unfamiliar performers, are filled with performers who convey a sense of absolute reality.

Fruitvale is a tragedy that proves all the more upsetting because it plays, for the most part, like an aspirational drama.   It won’t be an easy sale (and Sundance prizes, as last year’s Like Crazy can testify, have no inherent boxoffice value), but it’s been bought by The Weinstein Company, and hard sales are what Harvey Weinstein lives for.  With any luck, its night on the Sundance award podium won’t be the last time it hears applause.
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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."