Fruitvale Station is a very hard film to watch. From the opening moments of the film when we see the original cellphone footage of Oscar Grant detained and then shot by a BART police officer, we know what we’re in for. We know where this film is headed, and that very knowledge makes the ordinary actions Oscar Grant (a superb Michael B. Jordan) takes throughout the day all the more poignant and meaningful.
The entire film takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area on New Years Eve 2008, the last day in Oscar Grant’s life. He goes about his business, having arguments with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) about his recent infidelities, trying to convince his old employer to rehire him, and picking up crabs for his mother’s birthday party that evening. It’s a busy day, but nothing too much out of the ordinary. Oscar’s problems plague him at every turn, from his difficulties with Sophina to financial pressures to sell a pound of marijuana he has stored away. But there are still little moments of beauty here and there, like Oscar racing his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to his car after picking her up from preschool.
The final scenes of the film starting once Oscar is on his fateful train ride home are masterful. Director Ryan Coogler unflinchingly shows you every excruciating moment of the detainment, from the confusion of the police officers, to Oscar’s fear, to Sophina’s panic at Oscar’s having been detained to the enraged onlookers. And once Oscar is shot, the film doesn’t let up, continuing to the hospital and the slow, doomed struggle to resuscitate Oscar as his loved ones sit in agony, helpless to protect their innocent friend and family member. These final 20 minutes are so powerful, you’ll find yourself fighting back tears, watching the screen in horror as you pray they save Oscar’s life, even as you know how it all ends.
But the early scenes are every bit as important and impactful as this ending. They’re quieter, and they show Oscar’s complicated and beautiful life. For this white middle-class viewer, the early part of the film was an insightful window into the ordinary life of a lower class black person in America.
In particular, there’s a brief scene where Oscar is driving down the street after dropping Sophina off at work and a cop car goes by in the opposite direction. Oscar slinks down in his seat and peers back over his shoulder as he drives, instinctually hoping to avoid an encounter with the police, even though all he’s doing is driving down the street minding his own business. To live with the fear that a cop, any cop, could pull you over and harass you just because you’re black is something unthinkable to me, but Fruitvale Station shows it as just another ordinary injustice people like Oscar face on an everyday basis. Coogler also subtly links this action to the incident of Oscar’s death. They’re the same injustices, just on different levels.
Also remarkably, the film humanizes a story that has been used for all sort of political means. Fruitvale Station has been gaining extra traction in the past few months due to its similarities to the Trayvon Martin shooting, but Fruitvale Station shouldn’t be seen as important just because it’s timely. It’s a film that erases the easy classification of people who are caught up in events like the one it depicts. Oscar is neither a thug nor a saint, but merely an ordinary man.
There’s a scene early in the film where Oscar is refueling his car and another driver speeds up and hits a stray dog wandering the street. Oscar rushes over and cradles the dog till it dies, while the driver merely speeds off the down the street, escaping the violence they caused and any responsibility for their actions. The scene is a fairly obvious scene of poetic allegory, but it makes an important point.
Too often in incidents like the murder of Oscar Grant, the victim becomes nothing more than another stray dog, struck down and ignored by those in power, or made something less than human, merely a symbol or a lesson to learn from, by those who attempt to use tragedy for political gain. What Fruitvale Station does is show that men like Oscar Grant are beautifully flawed human beings, and that the real tragedy is not only that an innocent man like Oscar Grant was killed, but that a man like Oscar Grant would be thought of as anything less than human in the first place.
9 out of 10
Fruitvale Station (2013, USA)
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler; starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, and Ariana Neal.