In the aftermath of Ferguson, in the wake of the unlawful deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the many others before them, it’s so difficult to watch a film like Fruitvale Station and not be filled with the direst anger. Even for those of us on this side of the Atlantic, living many many miles away from those events, its victims and the disjointed society they inhabit, the persistent abuse and misuse of authority incites fury. And while writer/director Ryan Coogler seeks to channel and give voice to some of that frustration in this debut feature, his film never reaches didactic levels. For Fruitvale Station is a far more nuanced piece of work, existential in tone, less an examination of the causes of a single event, but instead an attempt to present a bigger picture.”
In the early morning of January 1st 2009, in Oakland, California, a 22-year-old named Oscar Grant, unarmed, handcuffed and lying face down on the ground, was shot and killed by a police officer. And so sets the scene for Fruitvale Station, where the horror of this event is relayed through real-life footage, detached, unsteady, distanced in its poorly-pixelated camera-phone format. Rather than bring us closer, it seems as though the inclusion of this footage seeks to separate us from the reality and draw us into the fiction. The fiction of a young man who strives to do better for himself, his family, his girlfriend and his child, to make something of his life and buy into the ever-elusive American dream, only to have these hopes so abruptly cut down. All in the space of one short day.
Working most effectively when it at its most downbeat, the film hurdles towards the tragedy of its expected end in a fashion that’s a tad too melodramatic. In its search for realism, its emotions sometime spill over into hyperbole as Oscar’s friends and family so frantically rush to their son’s deathbed and the streams of tears ensue. But what sticks with you isn’t the heightened tension of these final moments. It’s in everything that goes before it, in its bottling of the mundanity of the everyday; in Oscar’s wavering relationship with his girlfriend, in a pleading attempt to get his run-of-the-mill job back. While Coogler’s script at times strays into Screenwriting 101 terrain (a dead dog brings a hefty dollop of unearned empathy), its heartfelt-ness, and its strong characterization as epitomised by the charismatically tender Michael B. Jordan and the marvelous Octavia Spencer as his mother, smooth over these cracks of craft . The fact that all of it appears so ordinary, so everyday right up until its closing scenes is a testament to the simplicity of Coogler’s downbeat direction.
We may know nothing of the real Oscar Grant, who tragically fell victim to an unhearing society on that New Year’s Day. Jordan’s portrayal may be completely inaccurate in its intense likeablility. Less an exploration of a single character, however, Fruitvale Station is a light meditation on the nature of relationships and the rippling effect our lives excerpt on those around us. Tinged with sadness, it stands as an examination of a life lost needlessly, but, moreover, it highlights the burden of that loss on those left living.