Fruitvale Station arrives with a tragic sense of timing that director Ryan Coogler never intended. As the recent case of Trayvon Martin divides the U.S. along race lines once again, the film puts audiences squarely in the shoes of a young black man caught between his potential and his past.
The film was made to mark a different death: shortly after 2 a.m. on New Year's Day 2009, Oscar Grant III was lying on the ground, face down, when he was shot by a BART police officer. The event "shattered" Coogler and inspired his first feature film. Fruitvale Station revisits the final day in the life of this young man from California's Bay Area.
Although the idea behind Fruitvale Station lends it the feeling of a eulogy of sorts, Coogler does capture the grey areas in Grant's life. By outward appearances — cruising around in his hoodie and baggy pants — he might look like a thug (to use the lingo popularized by the Martin/Zimmerman case). But dig a bit deeper: he's actually gathering supplies for his mother's birthday while also trying to tie up some loose ends.
Ariana Neal appears with Michael B. Jordan in a scene from Fruitvale Station. (eOne Films)
The film offers a portrait of a character in flux. Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) has done prison time and has friends in the drug-slinging game. Now, however, he's trying to stay on the right path: providing for his partner Sophia and their daughter, Tatiana. As Oscar Grant, Friday Night Light's Jordan depicts a man battling ghosts, his temper and temptation.
After beginning with grainy cellphone footage of the shooting, the film jumps back a day where we wake up in bed with Sophia and Oscar. With their daughter out the door to daycare, Grant heads off to the grocery store. There, we see his two sides. The charmer helps a customer sort out her dinner plans, but there's also a hint of something else as he shifts from begging to fighting for his job in just a fraction of a second.
We're only given one view of Grant's earlier life, but it's a sobering one: a flashback to a prison visit from his mother, played by Octavia Spencer. Again, we see the two halves of this young man, putting on a brave face in one moment before flashing into fury as a cellmate mutters: "Snitch."
Much of the nuance in Fruitvale Station comes courtesy of Jordan, who switches from posturing punk to mama's boy with just a look. Occasionally, director Coogler veers into slightly maudlin territory: Brian Eno-esque guitars burble in the background and life slows down to a reflective crawl. The reverential tone feels somewhat forced and clashes against Fruitvale Station's natural, matter-of-fact approach elsewhere.
Michael B. Jordan appears in a scene from the film Fruitvale Station. (eOne Films)
As the film rushes towards its final destination, simple moments are infused with unavoidable tension as we learn of the paths not taken. Throughout the film, we often see Grant thumbing through contacts on his phone, words from text messages dancing across the screen. As he types, the words resolve themselves, like the innocuous choices he makes along the way. Stay home for New Year's Eve or go out? Take the train or drive?
As Fruitvale Station comes full circle, Coogler plays a heavy hand once again through his casting of Kevin Durand as the bald-headed and bellowing Officer Caruso. The former hockey player from Thunder Bay, Ont. is electric onscreen, but from the moment we see him, eyes shining with rage like an extra from Mad Max, it's obvious there's going to be trouble.
What give the film a sense of consequence, however, is not simply how Coogler recreates the event, but that he forces us to stick around afterward, hovering in a cramped hospital hallway as friends and family pray for Grant.
Fruitvale Station is an attempt to shed light on the story behind the headlines. Seen through the prism of what happened, Grant can't help but take on a somewhat saintly aura. Whether that's more or less than the truth may be beside the point. What rings clearest is the notion of a life snuffed out with a single shot.
RATING: 4 out of 5
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