Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from director Ryan Coogler that won the top prize at Sundance earlier this year, is an undeniably powerful movie that profiles one day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who unarmed when he was was shot in the back by a white cop on a subway platform in Oakland in 2009. In the wake of the recent George Zimmerman verdict in young Trayvon Martin’s tragic shooting, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between situations and understand that there is a deeply rooted problem with race in this country.
Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan (who was a standout in last year’s overlooked Chronicle), and because of the film’s singular focus and Jordan’s natural charisma, it is a deeply sympathetic one. Any way you look at it, Grant’s shooting is an awful tragedy, and debates about the whether the amount of time served by the man who shot him was enough (11 months of a 2-year sentence) are completely warranted. Coogler’s intention, however, for this film is clear: to give voice and dignity to Oscar. This isn’t the story of two people and their chance trajectories ending in tragedy. It’s the story of the victim.
On the surface, it may be easy for some to characterize Grant. He was an ex-con who had recently been fired from his job at a grocery store and had already served time for dealing drugs. But he was a person, not a statistic, and Fruitvale Station ably captures the contradictions in his character, with a heavy leaning towards the positive side.
There are scenes that were certainly fabricated for the movie, but the emotional truth behind them feels real. For the “a day in the life” device that the film is built upon to work, liberties have to be taken to tell a well-rounded story — all in the span of that fateful day. (There are also some brief flashback sequences with Oscar’s mother, played by Octavia Spencer, that fill in his criminal history.)
The day begins with Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and continues as he makes contact with various family members and friends. The conversations are casual and unforced, but they tell the story of a man coming to terms with his adulthood and responsibilities. Since Fruitvale Station opened with cell-phone footage of the fatal incident, these interactions are imbued with the weight of that knowledge. Coogler doesn’t necessarily rely on plot, but creates a deeply felt portrait of everyday life for a young black man.
When its at its best, the movie has a rich subtext. Oscar meets a couple of white strangers throughout the day, and the unspoken tension in their interaction is palpable, even as the conversation goes from civil to genuinely helpful. These moments subtly ask tough questions about racial perception and ring of truth.
At it’s worst, some of Fruitvale Station‘s constant foreshadowing can become a little heavy-handed. A brief fictionalized scene with a stray pit bull serves as an allegory for young, misunderstood black men everywhere, and its carried out with the film’s prevailing naturalism, but its very inclusion seems too on the nose. Also, a brief scene with Tatiana before Oscar goes out for the night makes Coogler’s strings a bit too visible.
But Oscar isn’t a saint either. He has a quick temper, he’s cheated on his girlfriend, and has made some extremely poor decisions that have led him to this moment. Whether or not that moment was achieved in the totality of one day in real life is irrelevant. Fruitvale Station is not a factual account of one day, it represents an entire three-dimensional life, and one that isn’t represented in film that often. In that way, Jordan and Coogler have succeeded in a way that few movies have.