Those who pay attention to news stories undoubtedly know of the incident that occurred at the Fruitvale transit station on New Year’s Day of 2009. It was at that place and on that day when 22-year old Oscar Grant was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in front of dozens of witnesses with cell phones and cameras. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s derived from very well publicized events which sparked protests (both peaceful and not) in the Bay Area of California and the movie opens with actual footage of what happened, caught by a bystander on the platform.
With the narrative portions of the film Fruitvale Station, writer/director Ryan Coogler attempts to paint a more detailed picture of who Grant was and who he had become within the year before the shooting. We learn about his girlfriend, daughter, mother, and troubled past; and in watching his relationship evolve with each of them, the attempt is to connect audiences to him.
Attempting to delve into this story is a weighty thing to do. It’s recent enough that many of the wounds felt in the community and worldwide likely have not fully healed, and coming out so close to the Zimmerman verdict, audiences will have that much more floating around in their heads prior to watching this film. What I will give Coogler credit for is showing the flaws within Grant and those around him. Like any real life situation, there are shades of gray and while the taking of a life is never to be taken lightly, providing a modicum of personal accountability is something the 5-second news byte cycle can lose sight of depending on the viewpoint of the particular network.
Obviously, there’s a lot of discussion that one can have about race, justifiable use of force by police, and so many other hot button social issues. That’s what makes something like Fruitvale Station worth watching merely on the merits of creating a dialogue one might avoid otherwise because of its unpleasantness. That’s not to say though that the film is some paragon of objectivity.
There are plenty of examples of some textbook emotional manipulation done by Coogler, most evident in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and centered on Grant’s little girl. Such obvious attempts to tug on people’s heartstrings rather than letting the actual drama of the events play out hurts my overall assessment. Some of the interactions between whites and blacks in the film end up feeling like required script elements more than organic or factual events, but considering just how thin a tightrope Coogler is walking, many of these reservations I had during and after the movie are less important than the overriding attempt to create awareness.
Also, to the film’s credit, the performances from its actors are all quite good. Michael B. Jordan delivers a sincere take on Grant, buoyed by Octavia Spencer as his mother and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Sophina. Young Ariana Neal plays Grant and Sophina’s daughter, Tatiana, and is the ultimate magnet for the audience’s sympathy as it continues to sink in that this little girl no longer has a father.
Of course, that all being said, I’m not entirely certain making a narrative adaptation of events, no matter how accurate they may or may not be, is the right way to go. This is the kind of material best presented via the documentary, which would also allow for an examination of the after effects of the shooting. There’s some archival footage of people peacefully protesting in the credits and some text thrown onto the screen prior to that which elaborate on what happened to the involved parties but it doesn’t allow for the kind of examination and analysis those already familiar with the shooting may prefer.
Fruitvale Station has gotten a lot of buzz, starting with its success at Cannes and Sundance, but I don’t see it standing somewhere in the 2013 Top 10 once all is said and done. While I applaud the guts and ambition of Coogler to bring such a highly charged story to screen, it’s just too hard to avoid shading a narrative film with the writer/director’s perspective. If you had been interested in seeing the movie, by all means go right ahead. If you only go to the movies to escape such tragic news as this in the first place, I suggest moving on down the line at the multiplex.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Release Date: July 26, 2013
Running Time: 85 minutes