Ryan Coogler’s debut is a laudably intentioned account of the events at Fruitvale BART station on New Year 2009, in which 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a police officer while under restraint. The injustice was greeted with quite understandable outrage, leading to protests and rioting. The majority of Rylan Coogler’s film is a low-key affair, however, tracing Oscar’s final fateful day and sketching in his background, family, and pressing concerns. Fruitvale Station really comes into its dramatic own depicting the lead-up to his death (deemed manslaughter by the judge), in which the police’s customary lack of restraint and racist behaviour are shown to be front and centre.
There is perhaps a lurking sense that this Sundance hit is built more as an awareness raising exercise more than a film one with clear sense of narrative. The result is equal part longueur and a sense that the audience is being led by the nose. Part of the interest is that there should be no “fateful” quality to Oscar’s last 24 hours. Things were going right for him, and things were going wrong. It shouldn’t need the attention seeking of glossier final day stories (Carlito’s Way, the last hour of Goodfellas), as the point is surely that this came out of the blue. To that extent, Coogler rather loads the deck in places.
Coogler chose to make the film because he wanted the audience to get to know Oscar, rather than his relevance being another news statistic. But one wonders if the actual video footage of the night seen at the beginning informs may not have been self-defeating. On the positive side it informs the loss, but it also carries a raw power that no dramatisation can begin to capture, to the extent that one wonders whether a documentary approach might have been more effective. The day itself is relatively uneventful, so informing the experience instils gravitas Fruitvale Station might otherwise lack.
Early on, I thought there might be a too-good-to-be-true presentation of Oscar, a loving son who comes to the aid of fish-frying girls in supermarkets (phoning his gran and asking her to give the customer a fish recipe!), so this seemed like a clever piece of misdirection when minutes later Oscar is caught in a heated exchange with his former employer about getting his job back. So too, the loving son making preparations for his mom’s (Octavia Spencer, outstanding) birthday is contrasted with his raging at her in prison a year earlier, when she tells him she will not be visiting him any more.
Yet, compiled against other inventions, this notional balance comes across as overtly manipulative. It’s as if Coogler was worried a more accurate portrayal of Oscar might somehow make what happened to him less condemnable or wrong. There’s the scene where Oscar tends a dying pit bull hit by a car, a rather clumsy metaphor by any standards, and another where he throws away his weed. His girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) later embraces him for his decision to go straight in spite of his having no fall back of a job. In the fiction of this piece, it seems highly unlikely he’d do this with rent due and having promised to help out his sister. Other moments (the impromptu final dance on the delayed train) are less problematic, if no more accurate to the real Oscar’s last day. Still, there is a sense of too much finessing.
The other scene of note in this regard is the coincidence with the supermarket fish girl (Katie, Ahna O’Reilly). She sees and calls to him on the train, which tips an ex-inmate to Oscar’s presence. It hearkens to the fateful twist of a fictional narrative (like The Great Escape’s “Good luck” scene) and distorts events into a classically ironic situation (if Oscar hadn’t helped someone he wouldn’t have died; and look how that same guy set up in a flashback, out to get him, finally does on his last night). On the other hand, the scene where Oscar talks to a guy, while their other halves are let into an establishment to use the bathroom, may be yet another where Oscar is shown to be a jolly decent chap, but it strikes the right balance between reflective and tragic; possibilities ahead, and paths that might have been taken.
Whatever his failings as a screenwriter, Coogler has managed to get the best from his cast. Jordan is such a sensitive actor (as The Wire showed) that he perhaps can’t help but over-emphasise Oscar’s best qualities, but he also embraces his rage. Diaz is similarly excellent as the long-suffering girlfriend. Kevin Durand’s cameo as a thuggish, racist cop is typically strong.
Fruitvale Station received a host of plaudits on release, taking the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Best First Film in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It also attracted additional attention through being released in the same period as the trial of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin shooting. There, the shooter also received the benefit of the doubt. In Oscar’s case it appears one of his friends did indeed confirm the policeman (who served 11 months) said he was intending to tase him.
Reviews such as Forbes’ take the film to task for treading lightly with the truth. While I’m not one for suggesting a fiction film is bound to show fidelity to the facts to be valid, it does make its case less potent here when it is easy to point out subversions or omissions and when – set up as this is with actual footage – most viewers have been led to think this is the unvarnished. But I’d disagree that Coogler simply puts a halo on his protagonist; there’s a running emphasis on a man struggling with anger. More than that, the reviewer undermines his argument with loaded language such as “this low-level criminal did not deserve to have his life taken”.
Jordan is rapidly heading for next big thing status, with roles as Johnny Storm and Apollo Creed’s nipper arriving later this year. Coogler joins him on the latter project, although hopefully that’s not a signal he’ll end up making rather indistinct Hollywood fare (stand up, John Singleton). Fruitvale Station is a decent little film, issues of accuracy aside, bookended with scenes of incredible potency but rather floundering for material in between.