Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is a raw, powerful character study that left me feeling angry — which is entirely the idea.
In a unique case of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, Fruitvale Station embarked on its festival run in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent Zimmerman trial, while the country was already deep in “discussions” (if you want to be diplomatic; “vile, backwards flame-throwing” if you don’t) about the issues at the heart of the film. While other Americans have also served as symbols for racism, injustice, and police brutality, none embodied all three in recent years quite like Oscar Grant, who, while unarmed, was shot in the back by a white Oakland BART officer and later died in the hospital.
Coogler attempts to serve honor to Grant’s memory by recreating his final 24 hours, and far from whitewashing the seedier elements of his life, we see a young man — a young father — who has made mistakes and is trying to do good. He has gotten fired from his job for chronic lateness, but he is kind and helpful to a customer (a cute white girl, naturally), even on his “day off.” He goes out of his way to throw his mom a great birthday party. He’s supposed to be selling weed for a gang (having done prison time already), but he dumps the bag into the ocean instead. He — and here’s the kicker — sees a dog get run over in the street, and cradles it in his arms until it dies. Did all of these things really happen to Grant in a 24-hour period? I doubt it. But does it matter? I doubt that too.
It’s that last moment, certainly invented for the film, that leans the hardest toward hagiography. In the wake of Grant’s death, many details about his life became public — his criminal history, his work habits, having a child out of wedlock, etc. — partially to polarize the issue even further, to somehow make it acceptable that he was killed by police for no reason; because Coogler wants us to feel the full weight of his loss, he gives extraordinary dimension to Grant as a human being. He’s a loving father, and though he has apparently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (and lied to her about getting fired), he’s trying to turn his life around and do right by her. Essentially, we’re meant to understand that he’s a good man, which will make what ultimately happens to him feel even worse. It’d simply be Screenwriting 101 if it wasn’t, according to those Grant left behind, true. He’s not an easily-categorized “saint” or “sinner” — he’s a flawed but regular person.
None of this would work, of course, without the film’s central performance, and Coogler gets a transcendent one from Michael B. Jordan. Jordan is poised to break out in a big way (he’s got Fantastic Four on deck, though I’ll always know him as Vince from Friday Night Lights), and he’s got an easy charisma here, and an honesty that is all the more impressive considering the role’s degree of difficulty. There’s a dreadfully thin line between respect and mawkishness, realism and manipulation, and Jordan glides effortlessly along it. He has help from the rest of the cast, largely made up of unknowns (including Melonie Diaz, who is terrific as Sophina) improvising their dialogue, and the great Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother, whose breakdown at the end of the film is agonizing to witness.
A palpable sense of dread was slowly coiling in the pit of my stomach from the opening frames, and by the time we reached that climactic encounter on the BART train — where Grant gets in a fight with a fellow ex-con, is detained by police, and somehow shot — it was almost unbearable. It’s a chaotic sequence, and even with all of the people recording the actual incident on their phones, we still don’t really know how it happened, but we know one thing for sure: it should not have happened. Much of what the film depicts is based on those witness accounts, and from talking to Oscar’s friends and family, but a fair amount is purely conjecture; while the film presents a plausible version of these events, there is still a great deal of uncertainty — though, given the senselessness of the crime, maybe we won’t ever understand it. Was Grant intentionally belligerent to the police? Did the officer — as he dubiously claimed — just “mistake his gun for his taser?” How much of it was motivated by race? It’s impossible to say. But no matter the explanation, a young man is dead, another little girl is left without a father, and there’s no justifiable excuse for that.
Fruitvale Station is not flawless, but it is excellent. The handheld camerawork and minimalistic score lend themselves to the verisimilitude, even if the screenplay — in a scant 85 minutes — goes a bit too heavy on the symbolism and a bit too undercooked on the details of Grant’s life. But by limiting the film’s scope to one man’s final day on Earth (save one flashback scene that the film essentially hinges on), Coogler also allows viewers to project onto Grant their own frustrations and see themselves in his place — he could have been anyone you know, the film says. Which is more or less true, given a few shades of skin pigment. I give the film credit for leaving the racial elements as subtext — the audience doesn’t need any prompting in that area. It pushes our hot buttons, but doesn’t pound on them. It doesn’t have to. And, more than anything else, it leaves you looking at your world differently, and desiring to take it upon yourself to make things better. Coogler, in his way, has done that, telling a story that needed to be told. Now it’s up to me, and to you.