It has been a long time since Fruitvale Station garnered universal acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film. Forward to June 2014 and the picture, a first time feature length directorial effort by Ryan Coogler, has finally made its way across the pond in the form of a UK theatrical release. The film is a dramatisation of the real life incident that resulted in the death of twenty two year old Oscar Grant on January 1st 2009, a fatal shooting at the hands of the BART police department. Perhaps a story that is more known in the United States than it is in Europe, I went in with absolutely no knowledge of the events, to the extent that I did not even know that film was based around a real life case.
In truth, my lack of knowledge about the subject matter turned out to be detrimental to my viewing experience. There is a shared sense of tension and morbid anticipation amongst a group that is aware of what is to come in a certain narrative, and Fruitvale Station certainly indulges in a rather high amount of over egging dialogue and engaging in foreshadowing that, in hindsight, feels a little too heavy handed. The plot follows the events of the last day of Oscar Grant’s (played by Michael B. Jordan) life, tracking his actions from early morning up until the tragic incident at 02:15 am the following night. Nothing truly remarkable occurs during these sequences leading up to the climactic ending, the majority of the scenes included are done so in an attempt to create a sense of character and personality for Oscar so the audience are as invested as they can possibly be by the story’s conclusion. He is shown to be a flawed man, but a man who has a conscience and is working hard to atone for his past crimes and build a better life for his girlfriend and five year old daughter. We experience several different scenes in which Oscar is portrayed as a good man, helping a woman with a fish recipe at the supermarket, caring for a dog who has been hit by a car, throwing away a bag of marijuana that could have been sold for much needed income. I can imagine that this relentless character building would have been extremely effective in playing with the emotions of those who are aware of what is to come, but for somebody like me who had no choice but to take the action as it was presented, the scenes felt rather contrived and, in truth, boring. It is always a sensitive subject to speak somewhat negatively about a film that documents such tragic real life events, but in my opinion there have been others (Boys Don’t Cry, Monster) that do a much better job of merging their fictional, more symbolic content with the necessary facts. It is when director Ryan Coogler is left only with facts that the film is at its strongest. There is absolutely no denying that the final twenty minutes of Fruitvale Station packs one of the most emotional punches you will experience this year. With actual mobile phone footage to consult, the dynamic and feel of the climactic and fatal confrontation between Oscar and the BART police is excruciatingly believable, and there is no doubt that the film succeeds in its primary goal of stoking the fires inside you that burn against social and criminal injustices.
Arguably the films strongest asset is its cast, all of whom turn in excellent performances. Michael B. Jordan as Oscar is an effortlessly endearing screen presence, coping well with some of the more contrived fictional elements of the narrative and helping to allay some of the heavy handedness with his sincere portrayal and talent. We will be seeing a lot more of Jordan, I would not be at all surprised if he becomes one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the next five years. Melonie Diaz as girlfriend Sophina Mesa gives an authentic reactionary performance, it is easy to go over the top when acting around a subject such as this, but Diaz is never anything but wholly believable in her physical and emotional contribution. As Oscar’s mother Wanda, Octavia Spencer gives an understated but important and impressive performance. Her portrayal of grief is perhaps the quietest, but the emotional weight of her silences are at times almost unbearable to watch. The stillness of complete devastation in the midst of the youthful rage that is produced by the numerous actors playing Oscar’s friends creates an authentic spectrum of the emotion and fall out that comes with a tragedy such as this, and the mature presence of Spencer adds a further layer of credibility and prowess to the film.
Overall, Fruitvale Station is a powerful retelling of a real life tragedy that deserves to be exposed to a wide and varied viewership. Though I feel the film has flaws and am not as enamoured with it as a whole as other critics appear to have been, there is no doubting that the film hits hard where it really matters and it is an excellent debut in filmmaking from Coogler. Whereas some of the fictional content may have fallen short of the mark, the faithful reenactment of the fatal event is as powerful and as devastating as one would expect. Michael B. Jordan shines as Oscar Grant, a man whose life was ended unjustly and whose story needs to be told. Fruitvale Station isn’t perfect, but it is necessary.