Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station doesn’t focus on the true life homicide of Oscar Grant as much as it tells the story of his life. A life that is still forming like any 22 year old man’s is. And yet the end result of Grant’s young existence permeates the whole picture because we know finality is very near.
On New Year’s Day 2009 at the title train station in Oakland, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was killed when a police officer shot him while he was unarmed and handcuffed. The film opens with actual cell phone footage of the incident. We then move back hours before to New Year’s Eve and watch Oscar’s day and night unfold. There’s a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). His worries about recently losing his grocery store job and whether or not he’ll fall back into the trap of dealing drugs (he’s been incarcerated before and is on probation). His relationship with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ahna O’Reilly). And a fateful evening to go see fireworks in San Francisco and a return trip home that never occurs.
Fruitvale Station does not make Oscar Grant out to be a saint. He’s a complicated young man who’s conflicted about his fidelity to his girlfriend and how to earn money to care for his family. In a flashback jail scene, we see a side of rage in Oscar that may sadly be necessary in order for him to survive in that world.
First-time director/writer Coogler is a USC grad just like John Singleton, who made his debut feature Boyz N The Hood over twenty years ago. Both movies are similar in this way – they know their environments and portray them with honesty. Where Coogler’s screenplay succeeds best is its subtlety. He recognizes that by showing us the sometimes mundane activities of Oscar’s last hours, it still packs an emotional punch. Oscar and the people he loves and who love him don’t know what’s coming, but we do.
Michael B. Jordan gives a fantastic performance that is an announcement of quite an actor that we’ll be seeing a lot of. His emotional state, in quiet moments with his daughter to truly frightening ones in that station, varies greatly at times and there’s a never a moment where Jordan’s work isn’t completely believable. Diaz and O’Reilly are quite good and Spencer is outstanding as always, with a wrenching scene after Oscar’s death.
There are only a few occasions where the script veers into unnecessary dramatization, such as when Oscar tries to save a dog from dying on the road. For the vast length of its running time, Station simply shows us Oscar’s day. To him, it’s just another one. To us, we know it’s tragically much more than that. And it shouldn’t have been.
***1/2 (out of four)