Emotionally wrenching and based on true events, Fruitvale Station creates a sad portrait of a young man shot down in his prime. It is the story of Oscar Grant, a black, 22-year-old native of Oakland, Calif., who died on New Year’s Day 2009 from wounds received from a police bullet while at the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Fruitvale Station. He was on the way home from watching the fireworks with his girlfriend across the bay in San Francisco when a scuffle on the train prompted the police to come and order Oscar and his male friends onto the platform. There, the tension and disorder escalates, and a gunshot fatally wounded Oscar. The police officer later testified that he thought he was shooting his Taser, not his revolver.
The movie opens with a bystander’s cell-phone recording of the incident, which serves to inform viewers about the event but also creates a mood of dread from the outset that permeates the rest of the film. Fruitvale Station is a docudrama that traces Oscar Grant’s last day of life. And it’s here that the storytelling becomes problematic. Hardly a day passes without a news story about a young black man who meets an unjust death; more likely than not the story doesn’t even make the news, but sometimes it evokes sympathetic reactions in the vein of “Trayvon Martin could have been me.” Yet as much as Fruitvale Station humanizes the person behind the headlines, writer/director Ryan Coogler also stacks the deck by overly sentimentalizing Oscar Grant’s story.
Fruitvale Station observes Oscar (Jordan) as he spends the day trying to be a better man. He vows to be a better partner to his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz), who chastises him for cheating on her as the film opens. He is a good father to their daughter Tatiana (Neal), and he is shown being a loving son to his mother (Spencer) and grandmother (Shears). He wants to stop selling pot and would like to get his old job back at a neighborhood grocery store where his unreliability got him fired. But when cajoling the manager doesn’t work, we see signs of a hair-trigger temper. We learn that Oscar did a couple short stints in San Quentin, but the reasons are never clearly stated. He is kind to a white woman at the fish counter in the grocery store, and, in a scene of pure pathos, Oscar comforts a dog struck in the street by a hit-and-run driver. Oscar is clearly a person whose young life is on the cusp. But the more likable Coogler makes Oscar, the more the film evades dealing with the injustice of his death, which is the real issue no matter what kind of human being he was. That he was trying to improve his situation only makes the tragedy more poignant.
Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) delivers a brilliant, sensitive performance as Oscar and is one of the primary reasons Fruitvale has such resonance. Performances are good across the board, especially Octavia Spencer, even though she is tasked with carrying the load during the long and unnecessary hospital scenes toward the end. Winner of the Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Dramatic Film at Sundance, the film has a lot of emotional punch. Ironically, Coogler’s direction may be at its best when organizing scenes of chaos as on the subway platform during which a series of split-second decisions made by a variety of people in the midst of pandemonium result in tragedy. The camerawork by Rachel Morrison is also essential to the movie’s overall effect. Fruitvale Station is a heart-rending stop; just remember that the line doesn’t end there.