This review was originally published on January 31, 2013 and referenced the original title of Fruitvale; Review has been edited to reflect the title change…
The line between documentaries and fictional filmmaking has become so crossed over the years that our first instinct is to question every little detail. Reality television certainly has not helped our grasp on the truth and everyone is so keen to selective editing, all the way down to propaganda news networks, that our prism to the world has become discolored. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station puts us through a day in the life – the final day – of Oscar Grant, who became the victim of a police shooting back in 2009. By the time that day is over, a viewer may have a heavy heart in wondering precisely just what was fact and what was fiction but there is little doubt at how emotionally effective Coogler’s version of the story actually is.
One thing we know to be real is the opening footage of the film which consists of cell phone video of the actual incident. A collection of black youths are detained by police at Oakland’s Fruitvale transit station. Tempers are high. Spectators are even yelling at the cops. A shot rings out.
Earlier that morning we meet Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) with his live-in girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their young daughter (Ariana Neal). With less than 24 hours for us to get to know this 26 year-old man, we become witness to the various aspects of his life that might be put under the microscope. He is unemployed but looking to amend that. With limited options he carries around a large bag of drugs for a quick sale, but dumps it before going through with it. Oscar is a doting father and is doing whatever he can this day to make sure his mother (Octavia Spencer) has a great birthday and he’s ready to make an honest woman of Sophina. Skeptics may think it’s all too good to be true.
Propaganda can surely work both ways and Coogler wisely does not paint Oscar in all manners of sainthood. He is a young man with a temper and not afraid to lay a little guilt on the store manager who let him go (for repeated tardiness) – “Do you want me selling drugs?” Walking away from a fight is not in his DNA as we see in a flashback scene where an incarcerated Oscar cannot help but fire back at a fellow prisoner who talks about his mother. It is this same demeanor that likely did him no favors against police officers who equally exasperate the fated climax.
Whether Oscar was on the righteous path of reform by his final day or not does not discredit Coogler’s efforts here because, in the best tradition of the movies, we want to believe it. Enormous credit for our involvement goes to Jordan, a late staple on TV’s Friday Night Lights and one of the super empowered in last year’s Chronicle. Holding the screen with a combination of unforced humanity and strength in both calm and outrage, Jordan does justice to more than just a facsimile of the real Grant, but a generation of young African-Americans pigeonholed as a reflection of the worst of society. Also very good is Octavia Spencer who, with each small role since her Oscar-winning turn in The Help (including a hilarious self-deprecating turn on 30 Rock), continues to prove that she is not going to fit into cheap melodrama and forced sass. Spencer is the genuine article who instantly adds a touch of class to any production she is associated with.
By the end of Fruitvale Station, while we are heartbroken at the needless tragedy of a life on the path of redemption, there is still much we would like to know. Casting Kevin Durand, a notorious heavy always cast for his imposing demeanor, as the instigating cop hardly gives the audience any choice but to be against the uniform. A joint portrait intersecting the lives of Oscar and the officer who pulls the fateful trigger (defended as a mistake in weaponry) may have been an interesting approach, but it would not have left much room for the four-year anniversary protest (filmed just three weeks before its Sundance premiere) as a capper.
A documentary may have provided greater detail into Oscar’s history (as well as the cops) without losing any of the emotional context. Let us hope that the most egregious factual error is the statement that his daughter was taken to see WALL-E back in 2007 (when it was actually released in 2008.) Though it is impossible to deny that unless you go into Fruitvale Station simply looking to discredit it, the film works in connecting the viewer to the horrors of senseless violence that are happening every day in America whether the news has taped footage to report or not.