By Samantha Highfill
Updated January 23, 2014 at 02:00 PM EST
Ron Koeberer

Fruitvale Station

  • Movie

Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Shame — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut tells the true story of Oscar Grant’s tragic death. Grant was a 22-year-old father of one when he went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2008. But on his way home from the festivities, BART officers pulled Grant aside for fighting at the Fruitvale subway stop. Onlookers watched (and recorded video) as the officers shot Grant in the back when handcuffing him. Coogler’s film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Grant, follows Grant through the last 24 hours of his life leading up to his tragic and controversial death.

Why it Wasn’t Nominated: For starters, Fruitvale was released in July, about five months before most Oscar contenders hit theaters. As unfortunate as it might be, it’s not news that the Academy suffers from short-term memory loss. Pair that with the fact that Fruitvale was shunned by the Golden Globes, and it became apparent that Fruitvale, for some reason, was no longer on people’s radars, which was ironic considering the uproar the film caused upon its release.

When it premiered, Fruitvale was immediately beloved by critics and fans alike, earning nominations at a number of film festivals and walking away with an Audience Award and a Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival. The film immediately garnered buzz for Coogler’s work, a breakout performance by Jordan, and the film itself. That being said, the Academy has a history of snubbing independent gems, particularly when there isn’t an already-established star at the center of it. With Beasts of the Southern Wild being the most recent exception, it’s not easy for a small independent film with a relatively unrecognized star to get its name put in the mix, even if it’s based on a true story (something the Oscars love).

For example, Ryan Gosling was nominated for his work in Half Nelson in 2007, which was a very small independent film. But, to reiterate, it starred Ryan Gosling, an Oscar favorite. He gave the film enough star power for the Academy to consider it acceptable. In general, it’s simply harder for the festival films to gain enough momentum for the Academy to look their way, and apparently, Fruitvale didn’t do that. Or perhaps it gained that momentum a little too early.

Why History Will Remember It Better Than Philomena: First and foremost, Fruitvale will be remembered for the story it told. Oscar Grant’s tragic death was already a well-known controversy before Coogler got his hands on it. Grant’s death had been caught on multiple cell phone videos and spread across the Internet at viral rates. However, the way in which Coogler went about telling the story was what really made audiences fall in love.

Coogler took what could have been a very dramatic story and dropped any notions of dramatization or subjectivity. He simply told a story. The viewers followed Grant through his final 24 hours, from picking his daughter up from school to grabbing groceries for dinner. The film was filled with unimportant everyday debates, and those little moments we typically wouldn’t think anything of. Fruitvale allowed the viewer to get to know Grant, not as a good guy, not as a bad guy, but just as a guy. A complex man who loved his family and was trying to get his life back on track. You could love him, or you could hate him. Coogler wasn’t about to try and influence that. All he wanted to do was capture the emotions and the events of that night, and that’s precisely why the film left such an impact.

And if that wasn’t enough of a reason to be remembered, this film introduced two profound talents: Coogler and Jordan. Jordan, who some fans knew from the television series Friday Night Lights, was tasked with playing the only Oscar Grant that most of the world would get to meet, and he stepped up to the challenge. Much like Coogler, he didn’t over-complicate things. Grant was who he was, and Jordan’s only job was to introduce him to the audience. And watching Jordan re-enact the final moments of Grant’s life, as he looks up at the cop behind him and says, “You shot me,” is an image viewers won’t soon (if ever) forget.

Add in remarkable performances by Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz, and there’s no way we will forget about this film, even if the Academy did.

Fruitvale Station

  • Movie
  • R
  • 85 minutes
  • Ryan Coogler