On precious few occasions, a film’s message is so genuinely rendered that it all but compensates for the work’s flaws. Fruitvale Station is one such film, earning this status by the simple act of placing value on the life of Oscar Grant, whose final day in turn places value on humankind at large.
Based on actual events, the debut feature from writer/director Ryan Coogler gets off to a haunting start with phone footage of the real Fruitvale events, whose viral spread turned the 22-year-old Bay Area resident’s death by police shooting into national news. As with fellow fact-based tragedies like Gandhi, presenting the finale up front allows the ensuing events to wind their way back, carrying with them an ever growing tension of the inevitability to come. Each word and action from Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on December 31, 2008 therefore obtains added significance when viewed through this lens, offering an unnatural awareness that only hindsight may provide. Whether major or mundane on the surface, the dramatic irony grants an importance to it all with every text message or hug carrying the potential that they will be Oscar’s last exchange with that particular person.
Key to these scenes working as well as they do is the immense likability that Jordan brings to the role. Engaging at every turn, Oscar’s genuine interactions with blacks, whites, and even dogs offer glimpses into the kind soul of a father, son, and lover focused on turning his troubled life around. What makes him a more interesting case than the average resolution-seeker, however, is that his quest for change is marred with flashes of a deep-seated rage. Jordan’s ability to crank up his anger, notably in a prison flashback with his visiting mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) mere feet away, painfully show the sudden extremes of which he’s capable. It’s this same temper that will ultimately bring about his demise, but while Oscar is clowning with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and her mother Sophina (Melonie Diaz) or helping a stranger out of the goodness of his heart, the prospect of a bright future seems wholly attainable.
The downside of so many slice of life moments is that while the numerous above examples connect, others take the air out of Coogler’s careful character building. Side scenes like Oscar riding around listening to local hip-hop are great in the moment, but may just as well contribute to the film’s scattered narrative dips. Nonetheless, with the ending still to come, the importance of such quiet spans take on greater meaning when they belong to a marked man. The bulk of what would otherwise be throwaway details then come pouring back once the conductor says, “Next stop, Fruitvale Station,” and the film switches to horror movie mode. At this juncture, each second feels all the more precious without turning sentimental, meriting comparisons to the fateful last walk in Malcolm X with its own form of heartbreak not far away.
With such a passionate humane buildup to a perfect ending that honors both the story’s complex and basic tragedies, there remains a sense that Fruitvale Station is missing something, but what exactly does it need? A parallel story from the offending officer’s perspective to explain how such an atrocity could happen? Less blanket good guy doings from Oscar? More exploration into the sources of his sudden bursts of violence and the related explanation of his incarceration?
While these clarifications have the potential of rounding out the story, they could just as easily go wrong and lessen the effect of Coogler’s straightforward approach. By focusing on one man’s life, delving into his assets and shortcomings, Coogler instead celebrates the core human traits that bind each of us to Oscar Grant and to one another, making for a truly noble pursuit. The stinger is that the reminder comes at great cost, but in drawing attention to the simple power of everyday good deeds that dominate the film, it serves as one of immediate and universal application in truly embracing humanity’s bonds and working to prevent future losses.
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Fruitvale Station is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
Elvis Mitchell did a pretty good interview with the director of Fruitville Station.