Fruitvale Station (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use
Running time: 85 min.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Keenan Coogler, Ariana Neal, Ahna O'Reilly, Trestin George, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler
Review published August 11, 2013
Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009. The event was captured by various cell phones from bystanders to the event, and as the film opens, we see the real-life footage from one of them, as the Bay Area Rapid Transit officers are standing over several seated young men they've detained at the Fruitvale station in Oakland's subway. Oscar Grant is one of those men. He gets up from his seated position, apparently against police instruction, and after some words are exchanged, is wrestled to the ground, and, in the ensuing confusion, shot in the back as he lay face down by one of the officers as they're attempting to arrest him. Oscar was unarmed.
From there, the narrative changes to the docudrama that plays out in on New Years Eve for Oscar Grant, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, Red Tails), leading up to that event. He's trying to smooth things out with his incensed girlfriend Sophina (Diaz, Hamlet 2) over a woman he insists was just a passing dalliance. When his daughter (Neal, Repentance) comes knocking, he has to hide his giant stash of weed he aims to sell before letting her in. Purchasing some crabs to cook for his mother Wanda's (Spencer, Coach Carter) birthday party that evening, Oscar visits his friend Cato (Keenan Coogler) at the job where he used to work as a butcher, hoping he can plead for getting it back, but the boss isn't hearing it. With bills mounting, he is drawn to go back to making some instant money selling off his stash, though memories of his mother's disapproval during his last prison stint weighs heavily on his mind. Sophina wants to go to San Francisco to see the fireworks after his mother's birthday party -- yes, it's quite an eventful day that will turn into a new year, and with a new year, a the promise of a potentially better tomorrow.
If there's a main point to the film, it's that there is a story behind each and every one of those people we hear about on the news of fatalities at the hands of police. Most people never get to hear them, and those that do merely listen and immediately forget them. Some of the men who are shot and killed by the police have criminal records, and may indeed have been viewed as threatening by those who are apprehending them. When the news is told to us, all we hear about is the perpetrator's name, where the event took place, what the police claim is the reason they had to use deadly force, and perhaps some details of the so-called criminal's rap sheet. What we never hear about is that the perpetrator was, more often than not, not an evil person, but a human being like you or me. He had a family, and friends. He had hopes, dreams, aspirations, and regrets. He may have made some wrong decisions. He probably deserved whatever punishment he received for them, too. And now that he's gone, even if he had been viewed by the police as a menace to society, his absence is still felt by a great many people who loved him right back.
Obviously, Fruitvale Station is made by people who sympathize with Oscar Grant. While there are many things he does throughout he move that paints Oscar as, deep down, a good person to those he cares about, especially to his young daughter, Tatiana, he's also somewhat selfish too. He's not always faithful to his long-suffering girlfriend, nor does he tell her pertinent information, such as the fact that he was fired from his job two weeks prior for tardiness. He's also dealing drugs -- something he already has been to prison for -- twice. And he has a temper -- though that just might be a defense mechanism to protect himself. We get cues that Oscar is about to turn the corner and live life on the right side of the law, and the right side of his nuclear family, but he's not there yet.
The film isn't about racism per se, though when mostly white cops detain mostly African-American suspects, it is often an implication. Are the cops overtly racist? Some may be. Or some may just look at a young black man in street clothes and immediately pigeonhole him as "suspicious" or a "thug" until proven otherwise. While they don't necessarily target African-Americans, they also don't give them the benefit of the doubt they might give white people they meet in the street. But Fruitvale Station doesn't even have that point to make. That's because, to most African-Americans, and just those who observe society, it doesn't have to. We already know about the problems that exist between the black communities and law enforcement from incidents that happen nearly every day. Coming on the heels of the Travon Martin case's conclusion, it's certainly ripe in the minds of many.
Like John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood was to the 1990s, Fruitvale Station is about the showcase of the traps in society for those trying to get a leg up when they barely have one to stand on. If the life of crime doesn't swallow them up, there are oppressive forces prevalent that push back. It's also one hell of a debut for a writer-director Ryan Coogler, who, just like Singleton, graduated from USC's prestigious film school. And like Singleton, Coogler is more than capable of drawing out some strong, emotionally powerful performances from his cast, which includes the transcendent Michael B. Jordan, an impressive Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer, who proves yet again that her Oscar for The Help was no fluke.
If there is a major criticism lobbied against Fruitvale Station, it's that Coogler utilizes creative license and injects several things into the story for the purpose of the poignancy and thoughtful commentary. Some might quibble that some of the events could not be known by Coogler, and is therefore embellished for the purpose of painting Oscar in a more positive light than he probably should be. Or for making what transpires during the scuffle with police a bit more one-sided. Much of the anecdotal information is what he received from John Burris, the prosecuting attorney working on Oscar Grant's case, as well as Oscar's family, so, of course, Coogler is not only hearing one side of the story, but also has allegiances to those who helped him research this story to tell Oscar's tale in a manner respectful to their interests. Additionally, some viewers might feel it's a gross manipulation that a scene in which Oscar comes to the aid of a lost/stray pit bull is a fabrication. Or when he dumps a stash of marijuana after contemplating how painful it was to be rebuked by his mother in his last prison stint. Or a scene where Oscar starts up a dance party while stuck on a subway train.
My basic rule as a movie review is not to praise a film for meticulous adherence to testimony or slam the film for inaccuracy when it comes to "Based on a true story" dramatizations. By role is to point out that these movies do contain embellishments, but to also review the film as a whole as a story, just like completely fictional ones. To negate the worth of Fruitvale Station for the sin of narrative embellishment, one would have to also throw out Braveheart, Elizabeth, Zero Dark Thirty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, or, heck, Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar". Whether or not Oscar Grant is a saint or a sinner, is not the point of the film. It's that every life is a complex, rich tapestry of both good and bad. It's that even though people are flawed and make mistakes, we shouldn't write off their entire existence with a shrug that they had a criminal record or didn't obey a cop's strict orders, so they deserve to die. What Coogler is saying is to look beyond the news of another person shot in the street as merely just another statistic.
Fruitvale Station is one of the most powerful and emotional films of 2013. Is this an accurate portrayal of Oscar Grant? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it could be. And the fact that it could be should be what's most important when it comes to how we view such incidents as they occur in the future. Whenever we see another man (or woman) gunned down while being interrogated by the police, instead of automatically assuming the person probably deserved what they got through something they did, we should remember the poignancy of Fruitvale Station, and realize that before every death, there was a life. And that life is more complex, rich and deserving of our consideration than just another crime statistic we hear and immediately forget.
©2013 Vince Leo