Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station attempts to piece together the final day of Oscar Grant. Here played by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Grant was a 22-year-old black man who lived in Oakland, was restrained by police after an altercation on a train and fatally shot in the back by an officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The case itself was big news — Grant’s death was caught on numerous cell-phone videos, and led to riots and protests. The film itself has been lauded by critics, and in some ways they’re spot on — Fruitvale Station is perhaps the most emotionally affecting film I’ve seen this year.
Any time a film can create an emotional reaction in me, it’s doing something right, but I have this nagging sense that Coogler’s film has accomplished this in spite of numerous flaws. Stripped down to its simplest pieces, Fruitvale Station attempts to humanize Oscar by portraying him as a normal person, as opposed to a pixelated image in a YouTube video or a talking point on cable news. Here, Oscar’s a complicated figure: an unemployed ex-con prone to outbursts of anger, but with a girlfriend and daughter he loves, a family who supports him and a desire to live his life on the straight and narrow. Jordan is excellent in the role, able to portray Grant’s highs and lows, and it’s for this reason that — by the time of his inevitable death — there’s a sense of sorrow and waste.
But to create these feelings, the movie cuts some corners with the script — also written by Coogler — which often feels too pat, ham-fisted and melodramatic. The scenes when Oscar’s mother (Octavia Spencer) urges him to take the train, or when his daughter (Ariana Neal) is frightened by fireworks and worried about his safety, are obvious and heavy-handed (to the point of cringe-inducing). On top of this, the film gets to its climax and tosses away all the attention it paid to showing Oscar as a fully formed human being, and instead chooses to unfortunately — and uncomfortably — boil down the heartbreaking nature of his death to little more than the fact that he was a father. Yes, this is agonizing, but this isn’t the entire story, let alone the story Fruitvale Station seems to set out to tell.
I have no doubt that Coogler is totally invested in telling Oscar’s story. But by taking a solely visceral approach instead of exploring the greater picture, he’s created a movie that lacks a certain amount of scope. Yes, Oscar’s death is tragic on a simply personal, human level, but it’s also part of something much bigger and systemic. Questions of racism, racial profiling or the use of excessive, lethal force are never broached. I assume this is a deliberate choice by Coogler in order to separate Oscar from the noise of politicization. And I understand the choice of this approach. It’s certainly the least controversial, most easily digestible approach to take. But since nothing’s being questioned, what exactly is being discussed here? For me, it leaves Fruitvale Station feeling a bit shallow — an unfortunate shortcoming for a movie that gets a lot right. Rated R for some violence, drug use and language throughout.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Regal Biltmore Grande