Oscar Grant’s senseless death at the hands of a San Francisco BART police officer is ripe for political gains, especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin trial, where racism, vigilantism and tragedy coalesced into national outrage and mudslinging veiled in the form of urgent discourse. In many respects, once the story gains traction, the fight for the strongest headline often marginalizes the victims. With battle lines drawn and debates spinning out of control, we lose sight of the issue at large: a human being lies motionless in the cold, unforgiving ground while we fight above. First time writer/director Ryan Coogler circumvents the poisonous politics and insufferable headlines, and instead offers us an invasive look into the last day of Oscar Grant’s (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan) life with the film Fruitvale Station. The key to Fruitvale Station’s power is its humanistic approach to a life unfulfilled, offering a balanced portrayal of a man sifting his way through an unpredictable, merciless life.
The film opens at the place where Oscar Grant claimed his last breath. Through grainy cell-phone footage, we see officers detaining Grant, much to the chagrin of onlookers. And then the unthinkable happens in the form of a gun blast. By using the ending as a starting point, Coogler shifts our attention from the seismic tragedy to an exploration of the man behind the headline. Specifically, he invites us to experience Grant’s last day, which is more mundane than the dramatic ending he is unfortunately given. Over the course of New Year’s Eve 2008, Grant makes love to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), drops his daughter off at school, and collects a handful of groceries for his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. To an extent, Grant has achieved human divinity, but he is a complicated man besieged by a troubled past and a murky future. His flirtatious ways undermine his romantic commitment to his dedicated girlfriend, his dire financial situation forces him to sell weed, and desperation all but eradicates any chances he had in being rehired by a previous employer. Despite his tarnished reputation, Grant continuously works for a new life.
With the benefit of knowing the ending, every minute we spend with Grant weighs heavily on our conscious, lending the film a great deal of urgency despite it revolving around everyday tasks. The film’s most damning, intimates scenes find us intruding in Grant’s family life. Coogler smartly underscores these particular scenes with haunting audio cues. The echo of distant police sirens, the piercing metallic running of a subway train, and exploding fireworks remind us what’s waiting for Grant once the clock strikes midnight. Invariably, there’s likely a great deal of discussion emanating around what’s fact and fiction in Coogler’s recount of Grant’s final hours. One scene in particular, where Grant clutches the bloody body of a dog hit by a car, has garnered a lot of questions about Fruitvale Station’s handling of the facts. Is it unbiased or an example of selective shading? It’s a legitimate question to raise, one that likely deserves a more thoughtful discussion, but if we dismiss the film on one symbolic scene, well, then we’re completely missing the point.
What matters is Coogler’s rich characterization of Grant, making him more human than any newspaper headline ever could. Substantiating Coogler’s portrayal of Grant is a tour de force performance from Michael B Jordan. Jordan is the kind of actor that graciously invites you in with his magnetic charisma, while also possessing the tenacity to repel you in any given scene. He is the embodiment of the human struggle, caught between pure intentions and egregious behavior. Supplementing the tremendous work of Jordan is Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz, both of which give award worthy performances. In these particular roles, many actors would’ve let emotions run amok, but not Spencer or Diaz. Their portrayals are understated, powerful, and measured. When on-screen together, the three actors craft a sincere bond, making the film’s waning moments all the more harrowing. The desolate ending aside, Fruitvale Station serves as a warm but complicated vigil for a man whose potential triumph was undercut by an avoidable tragedy.