Terrible things happen to good people all that time, nothing new there. The more accurate thing to say though and perhaps the more down to earth way of saying it is terrible things happen to people in general. The distinction of good or bad is completely subjective and is something that FRUITVALE STATION director Ryan Coogler masterfully depicts. Coogler’s debut film tells the tragic true story of Oscar Grant who was shot in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009 by a BART police officer in Oakland after an altercation on the train.
The death of Oscar is no secret hiding deep in the film, since real cell phone footage of the shooting opens the film, but the incident itself isn’t the focus of the film. Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar as we follow his life for the nearly 24 hours leading up to the tragic incident. Aside from a flashback detailing Oscar’s criminal past, the film very much stands to paint a portrait of a flawed human being, but a human being nonetheless. There is no attempt to demonize the 22 year old, nor is there an attempt to make him out as a saint.
The events of the film simply want to give you a window into the life of someone who has made mistakes but wants desperately to start over, but moments of his past come back to haunt him around every corner. As an audience it is up for us to decide if we have to take the filmmakers word for rather or not the moments we are seeing are actually what transpired that day or if we are being manipulated so that when the inevitable happens we get that emotional gut punch.
The performances are phenomenal, none more so than Jordan who commands the screen in so many ways. The soft side of his portrayal of Oscar is what grounds the film and what sells the idea that even when he loses his temper he is still human and is not just an impossibly kind and well rounded knight in shining armor. There is strength as well as weakness behind Oscar in every frame as he is beyond sweet to his young daughter, earnest in his attempts to change his life, but quick to anger if backed into a corner to where he says things that reflect his past behavior.
Throughout the course of the film the sense of dread permeates the screen as the audience know exactly where the events are going to lead. This is where the manipulation comes into play as characters including Oscar are making plans for the future, which might be a problem for some, but again for me I’d have to pose the question of what do you expect them to say? The event in the third act did happen, so sure they didn’t need to lean heavily on it, but you can’t fudge the dialogue by having the character know that he won’t be around in the near future.
The recreation of the events on the train and the actions taken by the BART police are brilliantly done. The chaos of it all is heart wrenching and illicit such a real and visceral feeling that it all feels so vivid and great at making me feel like I’m there in the moment. The pace of it all is so chaotic that it flys by and when the gunshot echoes over the speakers I felt dazed and lost in a wave of different emotions. Knowing what happened it’s easy to get caught up in anger, which may indeed be justified, but human error cannot be understated as there are so many factors to take into consideration.
The final act of FRUITVALE STATION is gut churning and devastatingly emotional, easily making this one of the most emotionally resonant films I’ve seen this year. There’s a sense of injustice the film leaves you with as the screen goes blank and gives you information about the fate of the police involved. There are a lot of emotions running high in the moments leading up to the trigger being pulled that make what happens such a tough thing to watch, but immediately after there’s an equally affecting sense of human compassion that follows by one of the officers at the scene that makes the finale so powerful to watch.
Lots of time can be spent arguing back and forth about the role of the police in the incident that took Oscar’s life, but regardless of my feelings on that subject FRUITVALE STATION remains an extremely powerful film. Though not all to the same extent I think we can all pull moments from the events of the film to relate to and connect with and use those experiences to get the full weight of what the film is aiming for. The heart of this film surrounds all the basic human feeling and functions of love, family and responsibility and uses them all to tell this story at breathtaking levels. Emotionally manipulative or not FRUITVALE STATION is a must see film that will leave no dry eye in the house as the credits roll.