Fruitvale Station ends where most films would start and is all the more powerful for it. A dramatisation of the shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and led to comparisons with Spike Lee for the film’s first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler.
The film shows in detail the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life (played here by Michael B. Jordan). Oscar is making some resolutions for the New Year – he wants to turn his life around and stop lying to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and his family. The film is essentially then a portrait of a man who has made mistakes wanting to do right by his girlfriend and four-year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
Beginning with some of the real-world footage of the shooting of Oscar Grant (the shooting occurred on a crowded train station and was recorded by several camera phones), which casts a feeling of inescapable doom over all that follows, the film settles down to an intimate portrait of a young, black man in America trying to put his past to rest. He has been caught cheating on his girlfriend and he has just lost his job due to his constant lateness and he still retains a near-explosive temper. But Coogler and Jordan are thoroughly sympathetic and they make sure that Grant emerges as a fully developed human being rather than a saint or a sinner. Jordan’s performance certainly helps here, presenting a powerful portrait of a young, urban, black male (a type too often represented as only criminal), who is nice and friendly and potentially violent without allowing any of these attributes to hold the role to ransom.
Coogler keeps his camera observational and we watch Grant attending his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday and kidding around with his daughter and going to San Francisco with his friends. Although we do know what is going to happen on Grant’s return from ‘Frisco’, a knowledge that does cast a pall over all that precedes it, the film works well without it. There are few enough films about the day-to-day lives of young African-Americans (Gimme the Loot is the only other recent one that springs to mind) that Fruitvale Station would have worked simply as a likable and moving family drama, one in which Rachel Morrison’s fluid camerawork recalls John Cassavetes and Bob Edwards’ sound design recalls Robert Altman.
However, when the incident at Fruitvale Station does happen, it is suitably shocking and challenging. Coogler does not make it clear where he and his film stand – was the shooting the result of racism, or fear thanks in part to racism, or was it truly just an unfortunate accident? This has led to a number of readings of the film. In a closing paragraph at the end of the film, we are given the BART cop’s defence (he thought that he was reaching for his taser) either ‘coolly’ or in a way that presents it as ‘faintly absurd.’ Is the real footage at the end of the film of a vigil for Grant on New Year’s 2013 at the Fruitvale Station a testament to the pain and anger that the shooting caused in the community or a ‘thinly-veiled code for a second, federal Civil Rights trial for the cop.’
For me, the film is angry and shocking, but it is also essentially a humanist film. It is clear from the way that the film has been conceived that it is more interested in humanising a tragedy than simply making a story out of it. Coogler does not approach the story as a battle in the courts, where most films about real-life injustices play out. Fruitvale Station is instead an attempt to represent a horrific crime in human terms, not in terms of justice and outrage and the courts. The film’s sudden ending (evidence both that Coogler’s heart is in the right place and that he is a director who knows exactly what he is doing) is devastating, not because it leaves you angry, but because it leaves you contemplating the pain and suffering left in the wake of the shooting.
Where the film does get into bother, and where a large amount of the criticism of the film lies, is in the positive portrayal of Grant, though too often these criticisms seem to be from people who find it difficult to imagine that an ex-con could possibly be a good son or a loving father. A review in Variety stupidly using the phrase ‘rabble-rousing.’ For me, the film’s only problems were a few moments where it tried too hard for pathos, such as an invented scene in which Grant is shown playing with a doomed pitbull and Grant’s last moments with Tatiana, full of foreboding but marred unnecessarily by her seeming clairvoyance. Two moments in which slow motion is used in an attempt to make the scenes more effecting are equally unnecessary.
The fact that the film was released at the same time as the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case only indicates all the more clearly how important it is. Not as a polemic, but as an attempt to give an insight into the human loss behind these cases. Coogler wisely does not say in the film whether the shooting was about race or inequality or anything else, but what he does do is put a human face on the tragedy, making Oscar Grant less the name of a martyr and more a human who should not have been killed by the BART police in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. Probably not a ground-breaking thing to attempt, but it remains something too rarely done and, when you consider both the frequency of these kinds of shootings and some of the oddly defensive reactions to the film, entirely needed. Basic but indispensable.
‘coolly’ – Ashley Clark - http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-fruitvale-station
‘faintly absurd’ and ‘thinly veiled code’ – Kyle Smith - http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2013/07/25/fruitvale-station-is-loose-with-the-facts-in-an-effort-to-elicit-sympathy-for-oscar-grant/
‘rabble-rousing’ – Geoff Berkshire - http://variety.com/2013/more/reviews/fruitvale-1117949029/