A Real Human Being, by Dayne Linford
On New Year’s morning, 2009, Oscar Grant III, an African-American father, was shot while unarmed by a white police officer in Oakland’s Fruitvale train station, dying hours later at a nearby hospital. Fruitvale Station, writer/director/Oakland native Ryan Coogler’s first film, details the final 24 hours of Grant’s life.
Beyond the clear racial dynamics inherent in the shooting, and the reflection on other recent events such as the wrongful killing of Trayvon Martin along with a growing epidemic of other white-on-black shootings, Grant’s death is perhaps most famous for the cell phone footage captured from multiple bystanders among hundreds watching the shooting from a stationary train. Coogler shows us he knows what he’s doing by opening on one of these recordings, grounding what follows in the actual events and making it plain that this is no fantasy – a 22 year old black man was killed, and this is his story. What follows is a day in the life that is only representative of that life because it’s the very last day in it.
Fruitvale could’ve easily gone from here to be a polemic, but Coogler doesn’t settle for easy answers. Grant was not innocent in the classic sense of the word, having done fairly extensive jail time for dealing drugs and possessing firearms, barely piecing his life back together at the time of the shooting. His relationships with his family were suffering, he had recently lost his job, and the temptation to return to dealing, especially with a family to support, was ever present. Coogler refrains from none of this; in fact, it occupies most of the 90 minute runtime. It’s clear what his goal is – not to make a hagiography, but to dramatize the struggles, defeats, and triumphs of a man trying to improve his lot in life. The sharp contrast of this simple living against his imminent death hangs over the audience’s head through the whole of the film, the knowledge that all that struggle will end meaninglessly on a train station platform. That contrast sharpens and heightens the film, lending a terrible finality to the events portrayed, even as, to Oscar and his family, they are just the process of day-to-day living.
The film is supported and, on a couple occasions, carried by an incredible cast, some of the best talent working currently. Michael B. Jordan, known primarily for his roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, stars as Oscar, lending an incredible depth and warmth, filling the role and making us feel as if we are watching Oscar Grant, a rare treat from what I’ve seen. I hate to use the old cliché, but this is Academy stuff, and I’ll have the usual complaints (yes, racism is one of those) if he doesn’t get a nod at the least. His work here is absolutely stellar, and it’s his performance that gets the movie through the few rough patches it has. Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, his girlfriend and the mother of his child, and is every bit Jordan’s equal. It speaks to Coogler’s script, but especially to Diaz’s performance, that the film features her role so strongly, and so even handedly. Again, this is an area where the film could’ve gone off the rails, portraying either the long-suffering, saint-like girlfriend, or the nagging bitch, but it keeps her consistent and human, dealing with Oscar’s recently-finished prison term and an affair from some years previous, even as she balances the news that hers is now the only income coming in for their family and tries, along with Oscar, to care for their daughter. Finally, Octavia Spencer gives another example of her always astounding work as Oscar’s mother, Wanda. Again, this is yet another potential failure that the film avoids completely, portraying a woman fully in the throes of caring for her as-yet wayward son, dealing with his faults and failures as he deals with them, at the end of her capabilities and trying to navigate the line between supportive and coddling. All three are representative of a larger ensemble that never fails to deliver.
There are a few stumbling blocks, however. Just by nature of its conceit, a true portrayal of all 24 previous hours, questions arise. Coogler is not always able to avoid these questions and they do take the viewer out of the film. Particularly in scenes where Oscar is by himself, which is a good chunk of the middle of the film, you can’t help but wonder how true, or how dramatized, the events on screen are. Is this to explain a particular fact that arose in the following criminal case? Is it to shorten to a manageable single event a process that actually took months, if not years? These are not questions a normal film has to contend with, but Fruitvale should be able to always keep us in the moment, taking as granted the events portrayed. This is a small flaw that has potentially huge consequences – if we don’t believe these little events in the course of his day, what will we think of the final confrontation at the station? Especially given the nature of the shooting itself, lending every interested person the ability to judge from the video evidence, to play detective, as it were, with the numerous cell phone recordings, this becomes a real consideration with the film. It highlights the fact that Coogler is himself playing detective in the making of this film, choosing a particular interpretation not only of the shooting but of the entire preceding 24 hour period, given here as essential human context to the final, primary event. It doesn’t appear that Coogler really wants the audience to entertain this particular meta-narrative concern, which becomes dangerous as it is always the elephant in the room, unacknowledged but very obviously there.
Coogler saves himself with the aforementioned incredible cast, lending narrative believability and character weight to each script decision, and by employing a no-bullshit approach to filming this particular movie. He is not here to impress, which is precisely what he does when employing an astounding discipline, adopting a cinema vérité approach that, though popular these days, works well here, mostly because the emphasis, unlike those other recent films, is on the vérité, as opposed to the cinema. Fruitvale Station is a beautiful film, but in the conflict between realism and beauty, Coogler always chooses the former, and finds the latter within its confines. Combined with the incredibly naturalistic performances of his cast, and a well-written, above all disciplined script, Fruitvale Station succeeds where it could easily have failed.
Ultimately, Fruitvale Station is a great film because it sticks to a single core concept – the portrayal of a single life, the mundane, difficult, and sublime nature of which was lost in the media controversy and the ensuing riots, court cases and passionate speeches. Coogler has admirably and powerfully dramatized those last hours, rendering a devastating portrait of American society on the brink and the single life that was taken, accidentally or otherwise, long before it’s time. Fruitvale Station reminds the audience of the singular fact we didn’t know we’d forgotten – that, mere hours before the start of 2009, Oscar Grant III was a living human being, struggling with doubts and fears, dealing with personal failure, attempting to survive and make a good life for himself and his family, and that, mere hours after the start of 2009, Oscar Grant was simply gone.