Directed by: Ryan Coogler
R. 84 mins
An intimate and visceral debut from writer-director Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station benefits from a believable performance by Michael B. Jordan as the senseless victim of a crime pulled straight from the headlines. Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008 and senses that something just isn’t right. Unable to shake the feeling, but pressured to turn over a new leaf after serving some time in prison, Oscar does his best to make his mother (Octavia Spencer) proud, provide for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana. We follow Oscar throughout the day as he encounters friends, family and others who remind him that his turbulent past isn’t entirely behind him but that there is hope for a better future. Later that night he takes the subway home after celebrating New Years Eve with his friends and loved ones. In a tragic twist, BART officers stop Oscar’s subway car after witnessing an altercation and shoot him in the back at the Fruitvale subway stop in front of a crowd of onlookers who filmed the entire incident on their phones. Given the amount of press coverage received by this event, there is no surprise when we reach the climax, but the effect is just as unsettling as Oscar’s death erupted a firestorm of debate among the American public. An entirely senseless murder, this is a story that plays out like a nightmare but at the very heart of the story is Oscar; Coogler isn’t interested in providing an intellectual analysis of the crime, nor the cold hard facts of that fateful day, but instead chooses to provide a detailed character portrait. Mixing fact with fiction, this is Coogler’s calculated version of Oscar; it’s one that wins the sympathy of audiences, but has some critics questioning the overall meaning of such a manipulative tear-jerker.
The film opens with actual footage of the shooting, but afterwards there isn’t much information given about Oscar’s past or even the backstory of the BART officer who exercised such dangerously quick judgement that fateful New Years Eve. We feel the pressure Oscar receives from every one in his life and we see that Oscar is trying his best, even as he cares for a stray dog and provides assistance to a complete stranger in the grocery store. But, all of these events are fictional and entirely symbolic. While Michael B. Jordan delivers a compelling performance, this film doesn’t do much in the way of clearing up the myriad of questions surrounding the shooting – even in the film the officers are nameless and seem to behave like monstrous cartoons rather than real people. We are given a soulful portrayal of a man at the cusp of some sort of rebirth, but the lack of authenticity behind it all renders this an incomplete investigation.
Nonetheless, Fruitvale Station is absorbing throughout and clearly, the big take-away message is that every life has purpose. While Coogler’s distortion of the event is hardly cinema verite, he is successful in hammering home the fact that Oscar’s death was a gross injustice that should concern us all. Other films, like Crash and Do the Right Thing, attempted to garner an emotional response as well, but some would argue they succeeded in delivering an intellectual response as well, simply because they highlighted multiple perspectives on a single event and ultimately, enhanced the dramatic effect. Despite some questionable objectives, Fruitvale Station is a harrowing tale that proves Coogler and Jordan to be veritable young talents – * * *