D: Ryan Coogler / 85m
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Ariana Neal, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Crump-Shears
Oscar Grant III (Jordan) is a twenty-two year old resident of the Bay Area in San Francisco. On New Year’s Eve 2008 he has a number of problems he’s trying to deal with: he’s had a one night stand that his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) hasn’t fully forgiven him for, he’s been unemployed for two weeks but hasn’t told Sophina, he’s holding drugs that he is expected to sell, the rent is due on January 1st and he doesn’t have the money, and to cap it all it’s his mother’s birthday (more of a welcome distraction than a problem, but still something to be added to the mix). Oscar has done time and is trying to make a new life for himself, but all these problems seem to be holding him back.
As the day progresses we see him struggle with the demands of being a father – to his endearing daughter, Tatiana (Neal) – of being an ex-employee trying to get his job back, and how to put his drug-related past behind him. He sees or speaks to friends and family, helps out a stranger in the supermarket where he used to work, antagonises his ex-boss, shows some kindness to a stray dog that gets run over, he gets rid of the drugs he’s holding, and he helps organise his mother’s birthday party. After the party, Oscar, Sophina and some of their friends take the train to the Embarcadero to see in the New Year. Returning home around two a.m., an altercation breaks out on the train as it arrives at the Fruitvale Station. Transit cops at the station detain Oscar and three of his friends. When one of them is handcuffed, Oscar protests enough for two of the cops – Officers Caruso (Durand) and Ingram (Murray) – to restrain him face down on the ground. In the process of handcuffing Oscar, Ingram stands clear enough to draw his gun and shoot Oscar in the back…
By now, anyone watching Fruitvale Station will probably know that Oscar died from his wounds (though it does come as a bit of a shock to learn that had he lived, he would have done so minus his right lung). In recreating the events leading up to and surrounding Oscar’s death, writer/director Coogler has created a fascinating and complex movie that doesn’t paint Oscar as a resolutely good man, but as a man beset by doubts and fears, and with a temper that can get the better of him – as best displayed in a flashback scene set on New Year’s Eve 2007, when Oscar was in prison (it also helps to explain why the altercation on the train came to happen). He’s also a generous man, a devoted dad, and doing his best to get his life moving forward on a new track. He has hopes and dreams, just like everyone else, and it’s this mix of good and bad that makes Oscar so credible as a person, and Jordan’s performance so convincing.
It’s a tribute to Coogler’s handling of the material that even though we know the eventual outcome of the movie, there’s little or no attempt to foreshadow the events that occurred on the platform at Fruitvale Station (the encounter with the stray dog comes close, highlighting as it does Oscar’s innate concern for others, a factor in what happened on the platform). It’s not until his mother, Wanda (Spencer) persuades him to take the train that night, and not drive, that the often – in movies, at least – convenient hand of Fate steps in. Once the fight breaks out on the train, the movie also speeds up, swapping its laid-back editing style (courtesy of Claudia Costello and Michael Shawver) for a brisker, faster-paced approach that lends an urgency to the inevitability of Oscar’s shooting. And when the fatal shot is fired, the investment in Oscar that Coogler has built up, makes it all the more shocking. It’s an unforgettable moment, and the suddenness of it is like a blow.
Being a true story there have been the usual claims and counter-claims about the movie’s authenticity, with various scenes coming under fire for not having happened at all (the scene with the dog), while Coogler has been accused of manipulating events to suit the needs of the movie. It’s a very emotive issue, but any movie based on real events will always be “unfaithful” in some respects, and artistic licence will always play a part in how such a movie is put together. And Fruitvale Station is no different. But what it gets right is the everyday nuances of Oscar’s life, and the absolute injustice meted out to him by an officer who over-reacted in a situation he wasn’t fully in control of (it’s interesting that while Oscar and his family are known by their real names, the officers involved in Grant’s death have been renamed). With these aspects so well constructed and identified, the movie gains a strength that is at once restrained and grimly moving.
Jordan (as mentioned above) is convincing throughout, and shows a range and quality to his performance that elevates his portrayal of Oscar, and he’s both sensitive and quietly eloquent. It’s a bravura performance, as effective for its quiet moments as its dramatic ones. The rest of the cast put in equally sensitive performances – Spencer’s turn as Oscar’s mother fully encapsulating the sadness she must have felt at the tragic result of persuading Oscar to take the train – though Durand is perhaps a little too heavy-handed as one of the cops that pin Oscar to the ground (he starts off as angry and unyielding and stays that way).
Rating: 8/10 – whatever your thoughts about the merits of adapting a true story for the screen, Fruitvale Station is one of the more honourable movies out there, and avoids any hint of sensationalism with ease; with a superb performance from Jordan, and inspired direction from Coogler, Oscar Grant’s final twenty-four hours are treated with both an admirable constraint and an unsuppressed sense of outrage.