Many will recall the January 1, 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III, as it was not only tragic but also one of the first “real-time” shootings caught on video by dozens of spectators with flip-phones. The incident would spark nationwide protests, riots, and heated discussion about race relations. Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar’s final twenty-four hours and what led up to the unarmed 22-year-old being shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. For a film in which we know the ending, it’s very engaging and carries a palpable dread of the inevitable. It also features a star-making performance by Michael B. Jordan.
We learn a lot about Oscar (Jordan) in the film’s flashbacks. He has a girlfriend (Diaz) and a four-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal), but has recently lost his job at a local grocery store. Pride forces him to hide that fact from his friends and family until he has no choice. Oscar wasn’t perfect by any means. He had done two prison stints, including a conviction for drug dealing. On the morning of December 31, 2008, he wakes up feeling like he has to right some wrongs. He tries to get his job back, helps his mom (Spencer) with New Year’s dinner, and takes extra special care of his daughter. It’s when he goes out to celebrate the New Year with friends that tragedy strikes.
The re-enactment of the shooting is filmed with chilling power by writer/director Ryan Coogler. Oscar and his friends get in a scrap with another group of individuals on the BART train and police intervene. They are subdued on the platform by the officers, even as they plead their innocence. Oscar is then pinned to the ground by an officer’s leg on his neck, and shot. The officer who pulled the trigger would testify that he thought has had reached for his taser, rather than his gun. The grainy video of the real incident doesn’t make it clear either way, and neither does Coogler’s film. Post-film title cards handle most of the aftermath.
A film that focuses on one man for an entire day requires a high-quality lead performance, and Fruitvale Station has one from Michael B. Jordan. Depicting Oscar as a still-troubled man with a good heart, Jordan elicits empathy with ease, which makes his demise all the tougher to take. Grant seemed like a man gradually pulling it together, and that’s the sense you get from Jordan’s portrayal. Octavia Spencer turns in a sterling supporting performance as Oscar’s mother, who remains calm and focused even as her son fights for his life in the operating room.
Fruitvale Station is a matter-of-fact retelling of an unnecessary and heartbreaking incident that doesn’t have any easy answers. It can either be read as police brutality or a horrible accident depending on what you see, hear, and believe. As a biographical drama Fruitvale Station works, though you’re not going to pick up anything about the actual shooting that you don’t already know.
Note: For more information on the Oscar Grant III case, check out Wikipedia.
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Length: 85 Minutes
Rating: R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Theatrical Release: July 26, 2013
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray