Harrowing, timely, and teeming with wrenching sadness, Fruitvale Station is an arresting slice-of-life tale, an ardent debut for 26-year-old director Ryan Coogler, and an unflinching look at police brutality and recklessness.
The title comes from the name of a commuter rail station in an Oakland, CA neighbourhood. In early 2009, it became infamous as the site where an unarmed 22-year-old black youth named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by Officer Mehserle on New Year’s Day. A few short years later, with the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin dominating the news, Fruitvale Station arrives at an opportune moment. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it is an enraging and commanding chronicle of contemporary American life.
Michael B. Jordan gives a sensitive and smoldering performance as Oscar, the unreliable, cheating high school dropout who, nonetheless, is compulsively likable and making a genuine effort to go straight. Jordan is deft, responsive, and completely engaging. In fact, the no-frills quality of all the main characters, including Octavia Spencer (The Help) as his headstrong mother and Melonie Diaz as his fiery girlfriend, drives the senselessness of Oscar’s killing home with instinctual impact.
A kind of early Dardenne, Coogler espouses naturalistic camerawork to evoke ample credibility and a tangible sense of the Bay Area milieu. We feel Death’s cold hand on that platform, not because it is a stupid act of randomness, but because we have grown to love Oscar. The staging of the climactic incident lands with anguished veracity. It is a meaningful memorial to a man who scarcely experienced life, and a somber reminder of how quickly it vanishes before our eyes. (Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and released in 2011 after twelve months in an LA prison.)
Coogler fumbles, slightly, in pruning a real-life figure into a composite-character martyr. He overplays his hand and prolongs some scenes – such as Oscar’s farewell to his daughter – to the point of overkill. Consequently, the film dodges the larger questions and places a heavy hand on the scales of justice. It almost plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with nothing to add to the tragedy but an artistic proclamation that “it’s too bad it happened.”
Yet Fruitvale Station is laced with zealous quotidian grit, gliding on career-making, promise-confirming work by Coogler and Jordan. It is a rousing document of life and death, of fear and bravery, of irreparable grief and indomitable hope. Its reverberations, both narrative and historic, leave one shaken to the core.