Fruitvale Station (2013)
In the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was forcefully escorted off the Oakland transit system by armed officers. He was believed to be involved in some sort of gang-related scuffle on the train. Over the din of confusion, shouting, and anger, Oscar was shot and killed by a transit cop. His death sparked waves of outrage in his hometown and grabbed national headlines. Ryan Coogler was so passionate about Oscar’s death that he decided to write and direct a movie detailing the last hours of Grant’s life. He snagged Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer (The Help) to star, attached Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as a producer, and the ensuing film, Fruitvale Station, debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the top honors. Thanks to Coogler, many more people will have a chance to get to know Oscar Grant as a person rather than an unfortunate statistic.
Coogler creates a remarkable debut film for himself, one where the details of life feel richly realized and observed. Sure there are obvious symbolic metaphors introduced like boiling lobsters and a lost dog that dies in Oscar’s arms (yes, foreshadowing), but as a whole Fruitvale Station feels like real life transposed onto celluloid. Coogler also works hard to humanize all the participants in his film, save for the transit cops at the end. There is a refreshing lack of judgment throughout the film as people are allowed to be the ambiguous creatures we are. No more so than Oscar. He has moments that make you wince, but mostly we watch a man struggling to get his life in order. He’s terrific with his daughter, loving and naturally attentive; he puts his family’s needs ahead of his own when it comes to money; he even helps a stranger learn how flash fry a fish, though there’s a hint of flirtation guiding his actions. But he also can’t hold onto a job, has trouble being more actionable in his life’s decisions, and temptation is always banging on his door to lead him back to prison. He’s a complicated man and Jordan (Chronicle) masterfully brings the man and his complexities to life. This is a star-making performance by Jordan (as was his turn on The Wire) and I was stunned at how easily Jordan dissolves completely into his role. There isn’t a physical nuance or line delivery that feels false. It’s a sympathetic humanization and Jordan’s performance is a gift. Combined with Coogler’s deft handling, Fruitvale Station is engrossing.
For much of the film I felt like I was attending a funeral. It’s hard to watch at times, especially watching Oscar’s family wait at the hospital for the news we already know is coming. It reminded me of 2006’s United 93, where the overwhelming sense of dread held over every scene, every innocuous moment held the extra weight that it would be the last time this person was doing this or talking to this person; the dread of waiting for the end we all know is coming. Coogler opens his film with real phone video recordings of the death of Oscar Grant, so from the first moment on we’re awaiting the horrible inevitability. I suppose it gives every moment an extra dimension of pathos, and to some this may be cheap and easy, but it all comes down to perspective. Surely if you knew the final day of your life, you’d likely find extra meaning in the simplest things, bidding goodbye in a thousand different subtle ways. This message isn’t exactly new; it was already old when Thornton Wilder hammered it home in his 1937 play Our Town. Carpe Diem, seize the day, live every moment like it’s your last, stop and smell the roses; you get the idea. And so, the entire running time of Fruitvale Station is a mournful examination on the contradictions, complexities, and connections of a single human life.
Oscar Grant is not lionized as a saint nor is he vilified as some mindless thug without redemption. Carefully, Coogler constructs a complicated man struggling to right his life. Through flashbacks we see he’s spent time in prison, and he’s got a quick flash of a temper that can lead him into impulsive and violent confrontations. It’s significant that we see this prison flashback to summarize completely the life Oscar is trying not to return to. The temptation is always present to fall back on old patterns of comfort, namely cheating on his girlfriend (he has a lot of girls’ numbers in his phone) and going back to selling drugs to make ends meet. Oscar’s ongoing struggle with personal responsibility has cost him his supermarket job (he was late far too often), and he’s kept this news to himself, choosing not to worry those close to him. But his options are limited as an ex-con, let alone a guy fighting his own demons, but he keeps fighting because the Oscar we see, the glimpses of what he could become, are one who wants to be better. He dumps his supply of drugs rather than go through with a sale. The gesture is noble but also partially self-destructive from a pragmatically financial way of thinking. He’s in a deeper hole, money-wise, but he seems committed to making the change. A late encounter with a kind stranger also provides the possibility of a new job, a new chance, one that seems all the more tragic because we know it is a promise that will never be captured. Oscar Grant was likely never going to be a man who changed the world. He was an ordinary man. But we still mourn the death of ordinary men, even those who have made mistakes and are fallible.
It’s impossible to view Fruitvale Station without its relevant connections to the Trayvon Martin case of 2012. Both of these men were black youths deemed to be “up to no good” with quick judgment skewed by prevailing racial bias. Both men were killed for being viewed as threats due to their race and gender. However, unlike Trayvon, we have a litany of witnesses and video evidence documenting the senseless execution of Oscar Grant. That transit officer argued he mistook his tazer for his gun because, surely, a suspect who is already handcuffed, face down on the ground, and having his head pressed down with the boot of an officer, surely that man needs to be tazed just for good measure. That officer, by the way, served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter (justice served?). It’s senseless tragedy built upon miscalculated racial alarm, and the reason we have a movie, the reason there were riots in Oakland, is because this specific case had witnesses. How many other innocent young men die every year because someone wrongly and hastily deemed them to be “up to no good”?
Coogler isn’t trying to stir the pot of racial animus or deify Oscar Grant into some martyr for the cause. Fruitvale Station only follows the last day of Oscar Grant’s life but in doing so it becomes an illumination of a human life. Oscar was an ordinary man before he met so unfortunate an end, but Coogler wants us to remember him not simply as a newspaper headline, but as a person. It’s a worthy endeavor that succeeds heartily but may prove to be dull to many, including several of my own friends and critical colleagues. I can’t argue that the life of Oscar Grant is notable to follow beyond the sad final twenty minutes. But that doesn’t bother me, because with the talents of Coogler and Jordan and their indomitable sense of purpose, the film becomes a fitting portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being and a life lived, not just a life prematurely extinguished. It’s powerful, upsetting, brimming with emotion and fury, and it’s also eerily relevant to today and will, I fear, only continue to be more relevant as the next Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin captures the national spotlight. Coogler’s excellently realized film is a eulogy to an ordinary man, flaws and all, but also a call to do better.
Nate’s Grade: A-