On New Year’s Day of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by a nervous BART police officer who had apparently intended to use his taser, and the young man died in hospital soon afterwards. Fruitvale Station sets out to recount Oscar’s last day, constructing a portrait of the young African-American who was working towards putting his life back together following a drug-related stint in prison. Trying to cover for losing his grocery store job due to tardiness, Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) spends his New Years Eve figuring out his future, hoping to land a steady job and continue providing for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). After celebrating his mother’s birthday, Oscar and a number of his friends take a train into the city to watch the NYE fireworks, unaware that this will lead to Oscar’s terrible fate at Fruitvale train station…
Written and directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is dense in resonant messages and themes, giving the simplistic narrative a great deal of weight. Coogler is especially keen to emphasise that there’s a story behind every fatality that we hear about in the media. Deaths are so common that we no longer think much of them, but Coogler reminds us that every deceased person had hopes, dreams and loved ones. Oscar Grant’s story is especially potent, as he was cut down at the time he gained clarity and was determined to clean up his life. Not to mention, his death was an accident that could’ve been easily prevented. The main thematic through-line of Fruitvale Station is the fragility of our existence, as any one of us could be killed at any time. At one stage in the story, Oscar encounters a kindly stray dog just moments before it’s struck by a car, astutely underlining life’s unpredictability and also poignantly foreshadowing what is about to come.
Coogler actually opens Fruitvale Station with authentic, grainy cell phone footage of the stomach-churning moment when Oscar was shot after being detained following a fight that broke out on the metro. It establishes a chilling reality, and our enlightenment about how the story will end only serves to accentuate how beautiful, crucial and fleeting each second of the feature – and of Oscar’s life – really is. Commendably, Coogler portrays Oscar as a real person: he has a big heart, but he also has a bad temper and has gone astray with the law. He flirts, lies and deals drugs, and lost his job because he continually failed to show up. Yet, despite all of his bad choices, there is tenderness to this man – he loves his family and daughter, and hopes to patch things up with his girlfriend and start a proper family life. Coogler paints a full, rich portrait of Oscar, who’s imperfect but lovable, and in no way deserved to meet such a tragic end.
Even though Fruitvale Station runs a very economical 90 minutes, it’s enough time for us to feel properly acquainted with Oscar, coming to know him on a profound level. It’s possible to become immersed in this world, and feel familiar with all of the people in this story. The tragedy feels all the more painful and real due to this intimacy, and it’s borderline impossible to remain unaffected during the final act. We know what Oscar’s ultimate end is, but the moment is nevertheless horrifying, and his valiant fight for life in hospital is unbearably upsetting. You want Oscar to pull through and continue improving his life, hence his death really hits home. Fortunately, Fruitvale Station is also a beautifully crafted motion picture. This was Coogler’s first feature, yet the movie is robust and competent – it was shot on 16mm film, yielding a beautifully gritty cinematic look that suits the material.
Another of Fruitvale Station‘s strongest assets is its cast, led by Jordan who’s extraordinary in the pivotal role of Oscar Grant. Jordan utterly disappears into the character, and he’s so amicable and down-to-earth that it’s easy to latch onto him. The supporting cast are just as good, delivering focused and nuanced work all-round. Coogler could have taken the easy way out and portrayed the offending police officers as flat-out evil, but the performers give depth to their characters, leaving it ambiguous as to whether Oscar’s death was deliberate or accidental. Considering that Coogler is so firmly on Oscar’s side, this detail is commendable, making the experience far richer.
No doubt Coogler embellished and fictionalised several events in retelling Oscar Grant’s final day, and a few reviewers have criticised this. But to slam the film on this basis would be foolhardy – it is prudent to judge Fruitvale Station on its own merits; as a motion picture which tells a story. After all, films like Zero Dark Thirty, Gladiator and Braveheart are famously inaccurate, yet this aspect does not diminish the worth of those endeavours at all. Fruitvale Station is a masterpiece, one of the most important movies of 2013. It teaches us that every life is an intricate tapestry of the good and the bad, and it reminds us that before every death, there was a life. It’s incredibly moving, rendering Fruitvale Station absolutely unforgettable.