Transit Police detained Oscar Grant and his friends following reports of an altercation on a train carriage. In the early hours of January 1 2009, Grant, a 22-year old, unarmed African American was shot dead by an officer on the platform of Fruitvale Station in Oakland. Grant’s death sparked protests across the Bay Area and the officer later claimed that he meant to reach for his taser. All films manipulate your emotions in one way or another. The trick of great filmmaking is to do so without you noticing. Fruitvale Station, the fictionalized reconstruction of the 24 hours prior to Grant’s death, only rarely achieves this.
Ryan Coogler’s confident but uneven debut offers a intimate glimpse into one man’s life. The focus is on quotidian details yet, knowing how this story ends, a latent dread permeates early scenes. Oscar has to deal with an accumulation of minor frustrations. We see him picking up groceries for his mother, ferrying his daughter to and from nursery and pleading with his boss to rehire him.
The point is to show that Oscar was just a guy and the choices he made that day had little bearing on how he died. But this point is obscured by overbearing sentimentality and heavy symbolism. Fruitvale Station is respectful to a fault. In honouring the dead, Coogler never allows Oscar the complexity of a fully realized character. Micheal B. Jordan is the film’s greatest asset and plays Oscar with an easy charm. Jordan keeps things convincing in spite of a script intent on affixing a halo atop of its subject’s head. In a flashback to his stint in jail we glean his quick temper and evasiveness but, by and large, allusions to his faults are brushed aside.
The film achieves a palpable sense of location through Rachel Morrison’s hand-held cinematography. But the film’s look of uninflected realism only makes its contrivances more obvious, and attempts at symbolic resonance aren’t particularly convincing. A fabricated scene in which a stray dog dies in Oscar’s arms seems too conveniently poignant.
But films are made up of moments. And one moment that lodges in your consciousness can make up for numerous flaws. Coogler’s raw orchestration of the climactic incident is made more devastating by its unexpected restraint. We know what’s coming but when Oscar is handcuffed and laid prone on his stomach with a knee clamped down on his neck, the decisive shot comes as if from out of nowhere. You remember the grainy mobile phone footage of the actual incident that opens the film. After the shot rings out we hear a dumbstruck onlooker’s reaction: “that’s fucked up.” Fruitvale Station needn’t have cast its subject in such an unerringly positive light for us to share this sentiment.