Film Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (2013)

dir: Ryan Coogler

cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer

Michael B. Jordan in Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station"
Michael B. Jordan in Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station”

The theme of injustice is firmly entrenched in modern American cinema. There have been countless films over the last decade laden with awards and accolades that have both shocked and touched audiences by highlighting the wrongs done to individuals, races and societies. Often these films reenact the events from start to finish leaving the viewer distraught and vengeful at the conclusion. However, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station opens with actual footage of the horrifying events of New Year’s Eve 2008, in which 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by a transit cop at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. It is a deft touch by the debutant director who offers up a sensitive, heartfelt film played out by an outstanding cast led by a groundbreaking performance from Michael B. Jordan.

Fresh from roles in hit television series’ The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Jordan makes the often tricky transition from small screen to film screen with candid aplomb. His intimate, adroit portrayal of Oscar forces the viewer to consider “Oscar the person” rather than “Oscar the victim,” a distinction that director Coogler concentrates his film upon rather than the nitty-gritty of the unjust events. This decision is a highly effective one. The film has won many admirers since its release at Sundance, showing in over 1,000 theatres in the US and featuring in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. It seems like the next stop is the Academy Awards next year. And deservedly so – the film is a huge achievement for a first-time director.

What struck me as soon as the credits rolled was the care taken during the first half of the film, not only in presenting Oscar’s character but also the world in which he had once failed to live in, and now attempts to live again. After showing the initial real footage of the events leading up to the shooting, Coogler winds the clock back, first to the morning of New Year’s Eve 2008, and then to shots of Oscar in prison a year earlier. It is clear that the road has been long, and tough. The scene in the prison visiting room is particularly notable in exposing the fragility and temper of an agitated, impatient Oscar when a fellow inmate insults his mother, astutely depicted by Octavia Spencer. She pleads with him to calm down, compose himself, and think about his future. But Oscar is engulfed in a furious rage. All she can do to help her son is walk away as he begs for forgiveness as guards wrestle him to the floor.

A year later, his life is in the balance. Out of prison and diligent in caring for his girlfriend and young daughter, his life is seemingly back on track. He throws a way a bag of marijuana instead of selling it on, and he honours his commitments to his family with love. All this with the knowledge that he has just lost his job for being constantly late. The temptation to slip back into his old ways is before him, yet Oscar is a man striving to fight the good fight. Yet, Coogler is astute enough to be true to Grant’s true character. He is still a young man wanting to live life without the burden of the responsibilities of work, children and relationships. Two scenes highlight Oscar’s ambiguous mind; first, we see him helping out a young women at the supermarket by ringing his Grandma up to talk her through a recipe for fried fish – is this selfless, or is Oscar looking to score? Secondly, Oscar spots a dog in the road whilst filling up his car with petrol. He cajoles the dog out of danger and looks for his owner but nobody is around. Suddenly a truck runs over the dog and Oscar chases the truck down the road – what would have happened if Oscar caught up with the driver? Would he have let his temper get the better of him, or persuade the driver to do the right thing and responsibility for the accident? In the end, we will never know. The scene with the dog is crucial to understanding not only the purpose of Coogler’s film, but the true excellence of Jordan’s performance. Oscar picks up the whimpering dog, blood streaming from it’s mouth, and carries it to the side of the road, talking to comfort it until the dog falls silent. All Oscar can do is helplessly leave the dog by the side of the road and drive away. It is a poignant moment. Here we see a young man, calling for help from the world, looking to do what’s right, looking to find a way. But nobody comes, his cries go in vain – this world will never give him a helping hand.

The last quarter of the film deals with the night of Grant’s death and is predictably tough to watch as we already know the outcome. As a viewer you plague yourself with questions about how it could have been avoided? and if his mother had not persuaded him to take the train that night instead of driving then the events would never have happened. The muddled confusion of the night begs further questions – why was Grant the one shot when a group of his friends were also pulled off the train? How could a trained officer mistake his gun for a taser? This was the reason given by the BART cop who shot Grant in the official trial, in which he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2 years to jail. Even more harrowing than the scenes at the end of the film when Oscar’s family learn of his death is the real life footage of Oscar’s young daughter attending a rally outside the Fruitvale BART station on the anniversary of the shooting. It is a devastating image, and one that will undoubtedly reoccur year after year.

The film in my eyes is a profound success. Some critics are claiming that it succeeds in “writing Oscar back to life” but this is something that sadly cannot happen. It is afflicting and emotional yet also affirming and hopeful, and in a way those words could also sum up Oscar Grant III. But despite everything, he is now yet another young black man gone from a society that seems unable to stem this all too familiar tide.

Ben Haller, 2013

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