In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict following last year’s murder of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station possesses a true sense of immediacy. Perhaps the contemporary onslaught of media attention to Martin’s death has dulled my ability to recollect Oscar Grant’s tragic death that Ryan Coogler recounts in this flawed, though impressive, debut feature. On January 1st 2009, Oscar Grant’s murder by Oakland transit officials was recorded for the world to see: the passengers on the train that Grant (and other black men) were extracted from pulled out their phones and recorded the event. And Coogler, to his credit, mounts a true sense of dread and devastating loss in the way he builds and frames the slaying. But like the passengers watching the event unfold through tempered glass, Coogler demands a gutteral response, clearly insisting on garnering an emotional response rather than dissecting the racial politics of the event.
Oscar (an exceptional Micheal B. Jordan) is first seen trying to woo his girlfriend Sophinna (Melonie Diaz), making the sort of flagrant promises that a man makes when trying to get laid. Resistant, Sophinna clearly outlines the narrative trajectory that Oscar would take leading up to the Fruitvale incident. With the New Year soon approaching and the chance to begin anew, Oscar looks to better his life and the life of his family. And with his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday on New Year’s Eve, Oscar is afforded the chance to bring his loved ones together in an effort to spur on his new familial resolve.
Coogler’s design is simple: opening with one of the many video recordings of the Fruitvale incident, he leaps back in time to show the audience a day in the life of Oscar Grant. Capturing a sun-drenched Oakland, cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Sound of My Voice) provides a hopeful hue to Grant’s final hours. From dropping off his girlfriend at work to pleading for his former job, Coogler frames Grant as a man on the uptick. With accusations arguing that Coogler sanctifies his central character, there are plenty of suggestions to the contrary – rather, he constructs a varied and balanced conduit for audiences to react to. Many of Grant’s gestures are underscored by his own troubled past. With an influx temperament and looming questions on his commitment to Sophinna, Grant’s actions are defiantly unpredictable.
As emotionally evocative Fruitvale Station ends up being, striking all the right emotional chords, Coogler denies audiences the opportunity to levy any sense of social or political weight to the event. With so many of Grant’s interactions through the day removing the very concept of race from the discussion, the subsequent event at Fruitvale terminal presents itself as a particularly jarring social event; an anomaly where race is the distinctive factor between authority and subject, master and slave. This sharp dichotomy works for Fruitvale’s primal dramatic efforts, but doesn’t particularly add to interpreting the racial complexity of the killing itself, nor does it inspire much thought on what Coogler thought of the event beyond being an act of grotesque inhumanity. Despite my reservations, Coogler shows deft skill in the way he realizes Grant’s story, showing the sort of sharp dramatic instincts that many directors take several films in to develop and hone. Fruitvale Station all comes together as an exercise in dramatic (not melodramatic) filmmaking that unfortunately lacks the crucial sociological insight to make it truly great.