By Jacob Mertens.
I cannot write a review for Fruitvale Station without having the recent verdict of the George Zimmerman trial dig at my sides, seeking some corresponding resonance. The risk here is that I let Ryan Coogler’s film become something more than it ought to be: a simple portrait of a life cut short. And I do not say this to belittle the genuine outrage stirred by this story and those like it, or to say that profound issues of race in our country should not be considered when discussing these stories. What I mean to say is that Fruitvale was made as an intimate film, shot in the cinema verité style of handheld close-ups, and the artistic impulse should be honored. And yet, after saying all that I still want to howl and rail anyway, and use this review as my platform to do so. I have the feeling that Coogler felt the same way at times, and it shows in his film. It is in these moments that Fruitvale becomes less about a human being and more about an abstracted sense of anger, and feels less poignant for the change. Still, for the most part the director stays loyal to minute observations of his main character, the tragically slain Oscar Grant, played with great care by Michael B. Jordan. So long as he does so, the film excels as a tender depiction of a flawed human being who, nevertheless, died senselessly, fatally shot by a white police officer in the Bay Area Fruitvale train station on New Year’s Day, 2009.
The film opens with real footage of the killing, taken from one of the train passenger’s cell phones. A police officer has Oscar pinned to the ground, and just as the screen cuts to black a shot rings out and the entire station seems to gasp for air at once. Carried by the momentum of this frightening scene, the actors take over as Oscar tries to soothe his girlfriend Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, after she learns he has been having an affair. Whether true or not to the film’s real-life counterparts—and I cannot say for certain that it is, since Coogler’s script plays loose with a shaky fact-based timeline—the scene establishes Oscar as a man neither to be glorified nor denigrated. Fruitvale continues to follow Oscar on the last day of his life, giving both momentous and mundane moments equal footing. Oscar buys food for his mother’s birthday, tells his girlfriend he lost his job two weeks ago, races his daughter to the car after preschool, reflects on time he spent in jail, and watches a dog get run over by a speeding car and sits with the creature as it dies. As time passes, the New Year draws near and fireworks light up the sky and dissolve: an almost too perfect metaphor.
The effort to humanize Oscar becomes particularly moving when, in a show of obscene force, the BART police seek to strip away the man’s humanity all together. And truthfully, that is the only way to describe the moment preceding Oscar’s murder. Oscar gets in a fight in a train car with a man he had bad blood with in prison, and is removed from the train by police officers called in to quell the assault. The situation quickly devolves as the police go on a power trip, with one officer taunting Oscar, cuffing him, and eventually forcing him on his back and pressing his knee against the man’s neck. As he does so, a fellow officer behind him seeks some proportionate act of abuse. In an unfathomable gesture of insensate bloodlust, he pulls his gun out and shoots Oscar in the back. Then reality sets in and the frenzied air clears to a disquieting and rather immediate sense of regret.
The stillness that follows the shot cannot help but to be moving, haunting, heart-rending, infuriating, and mind-numbingly sorrowful. If nothing else, Fruitvale gets this moment right and gives its audience no easy answer as to why this happened and what can be done to change it. If I had one lingering criticism about the film though, it is that there are selective moments in which the filmmaker wants its audience to know just how terrible it all is—to satisfy that itch of indignation. A particularly egregious use of dramatization can be found in a string of prescient warnings:
- Oscar’s mother insists that he take the train to go see the fireworks because it will be safer if he plans on drinking.
- Oscar thinks about staying in, but his girlfriend convinces him to follow through with his plans.
- Oscar’s daughter tells him not to leave, chiefly because she confuses the sound of fireworks with gunshots and is worried for him.
While it is possible that any one of these moments could have happened, to have them all placed side by side, as a lead up to Fruitvale’s inevitable end, effectively turns an otherwise believable rendering of events into cinematic hyperbole. And while I understand what prompted the decision, and feel that the mother’s guilt over her own unforeseen part in Oscar’s death rings true of inexplicable tragedy, it comes across as a writer-director who does not trust the story to speak for itself.
Thankfully, the story speaks for itself anyway, despite these brief lapses in trust. And the story that endures here is not just one of grave injustice, of a police officer who got an eleven month stay in prison for murdering Oscar Grant in cold blood, or a jury who passed this conviction—no, what endures is the warmth of a life, however imperfect and however brief.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.