Fruitvale Station is one of those fact based films that make me feel a little embarrassed, as I’m apparently so out-of-touch that I’d never heard of the real-life incident that inspired it, that also made headlines and caused protests a few short years ago.
I guess it’s not a spoiler to reveal this, the whole premise of the movie depends upon this knowledge, every article on the film mentions it, and indeed, the film itself begins with grainy, real mobile phone footage of the incident, but just in case, here’s your warning.
Oscar Grant was a 22 year old African-American man who was shot to death on New Year’s Day 2009 by a police officer at the titular Bay Area train station. The shooting was captured by other passengers on the train and spread to the internet.
It’s easy to understand how young debutant filmmaker Ryan Coogler wanted to turn this tragic event into a movie. However, it’s not actually that much of a story in itself, simply reconstructing the shooting wouldn’t suffice for a feature length film. Fruitvale Station’s approach is to re-create the events of the last day in his life that led up to his shocking demise. It begins with him waking up, he talks with his girlfriend, his young daughter, and his mother. He goes to a local supermarket to buy food for his mother’s birthday party. There we learn that he was recently fired for repeatedly showing up late. We also get some flashbacks revealing that Oscar was in prison, though we don’t learn what exactly for.
All of this serves to flesh Oscar out as a 3 dimensional character, and it does a good job of that, we have a good sense of who he is by the end of the first hour. However, this isn’t exactly a riveting story, featuring many mundane everyday activities. It begs the hypothetical question as to whether these moments would seem particularly interesting if we didn’t already know where the story was headed. Coogler films all this in an assured, naturalistic style, though adds a Sherlock-like touch where by Oscar’s text messages appear on the screen which clashes a little.
As a reconstruction, Fruitvale Station does take a few liberties, there are several scenes where Oscar is by himself in which Coogler could not have known what actually happened. Given that he’s fabricated scenes for dramatic effect, he could have maybe made them a bit more eventful.
However, when we get to the final scenes, Coogler really shows his talent, with the film’s inevitable conclusion still feeling devastating, and the build-up frighteningly tense. Throughout, Fruitvale Station is anchored by a very impressive performance from Chronicle star Michael B. Jordan that could see him on his way to the A-list. It’s a promising introduction for Coogler (who was in his mid-twenties when he made this) that proved to be a big winner in Sundance last year.