Fruitvale Station

December 27, 2013


I don’t like approaching a film with the idea that there is a fundamental problem with it on a conceptual level, but alas, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut Fruitvale Station presented me with just that.  Based on the horrific true shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police in the early hours of January 1st, 2009, Fruitvale Station is a last-day-in-the-life account of the victim, a 22 year old African American with a girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and a daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and hopes of turning his somewhat stunted life around.  It’s a tragedy, of course, and the film even opens with the actual footage of the incident that enraged so many (including myself).  The question is, why this film and why this story?

Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, of The Wire and Friday Night Lights) essentially goes about his day trying to get his old job back, considering and then abandoning a drug deal, then going to his mother’s for her birthday before heading off across the bay into San Francisco for the New Years celebration.  As you can imagine, not a lot actually happens and not a lot really should, considering the aim of the film to depict a decent guy trying to get on the right path to be a better father and hopefully a husband.  If this were fictional, and there was no violent ending, it was be a pretty serviceable, albeit minor, portrait of life as a young man facing life in modern urban America.  Not revelatory, or even particularly deep, but well acted and well written (the film is attuned to the charming small moments, like Tatiana eating and finishing a bowl of cereal), and reasonably well shot – though it does rely on American Indie Handheld standards like panning slightly to get the sun shining through the trees because it’s pretty and elegiac and indicative of the poetry of everyday life etc etc.  Especially for a first feature, this is very solid craftsmanship, elevated as such things are by two outstanding performances by Michael B. Jordan and (of course) Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother.

As written, Oscar is a decent guy struggling to get his life together, but a brief prison flashback aside, we have no real understanding of how we get into the troubles he has been or how he’s developed.  Jordan steps up, however, and the quick jump to anger is subtly clear in a few scenes, perhaps more showingly in a prison altercation, but all the more effective in a scene where he tries to get his old job back even though he knows he doesn’t deserve.  There’s misplaced anger there, and it speaks volumes as to who Oscar Grant is, especially in comparison to the other moments of character establishment like the dog getting hit by a car with only Oscar there for comfort.

This isn’t, however, a story of pure fiction, and there is that ending that the film is always building towards.  There’s a point where Oscar helps a pregnant lady get access to a bathroom on New Years and her husband explains how he turned his life around, and even offers a business card and a helping hand, where the creakiness of the machine moves to the unbearable.  If only this horrible thing hadn’t happened, he could have finally turned it around the way he wanted to, because he was a nice guy and was offered this job and everything was paved with gold etc etc.  I might be overegging it a bit, but for all the things this film does well, attempting to hide the hands pulling the heart strings is not one of them.  The finale is tense and terrible, and Spencer delivers in the hospital scenes when it might have been appropriate not to show any of that at all.

Still, the conceptual problem remains, and it is that, somewhere beneath all the honesty and the good intentions is the notion that if we saw Oscar Grant as a fleshed out human being (albeit one tilted towards the side of angels, which he very well may have been), then this horrific crime would be more outrageous and shocking.  I tend to think that Oscar could have been a drug dealer and a bad father and it wouldn’t matter, because the crime that took place on the platform at Fruitvale Station is so egregious and was so shockingly handled that the relative moral standing of the victim is irrelevant.  This kind of brutality and horror happens all the time in America, and by funnelling the impassioned argument that makes people angry into “well he was a decent guy!”, Fruitvale Station unintentionally suggests that if he was less decent, this would be less of a crime or less of a “tragedy” – if you want to call a crime a tragedy, that is.

There are all kinds of larger, systemic problems bouncing around the edges of the film that are never even half-explored, such as the dearth of decent employment opportunities that plague the young and urban poor that pushes them into more lucrative drug trade, or the kind of racial profiling that doesn’t give someone of the wrong colour the benefit of the doubt by the police, or even more immediately why people in positions of authority are held to a lesser degree of responsibility (even if you believe the “I mistook my gun for a taser” defence, which is suspect at best) when those people should be held to a higher degree of responsibility just because abuse is so much easier.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh on the venture, as I do think everyone’s hearts were in the right place and as I said, the craftsmanship is solid.  I also do believe that Michael B. Jordan deserves all the accolades he receives and probably considerably more than he actually gets.  I just don’t think that systemic injustice should be reduced to a manipulative tearjerker, as good as it as being those things.  There’s an extraordinary film to be made out of this material, but the approach doesn’t give it what it deserves.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: