Fruitvale Station is the work of a first time director, and that’s immediately apparent. Fruitvale Station features another in a line of strong performances of a promising young actor, and that’s immediately apparent, too. That actor, Michael B. Jordan, plays a complicated young man named Oscar in search of redemption, redemption that certainly won’t come easy, redemption that he must earn through a renewed commitment to his family. Oscar contains contradictions, that much is pretty obvious. But as a film, Fruitvale Station unnecessarily muddies our relationship with Oscar, obfuscating what should have been our clear insight into Oscar’s character, as ably conveyed by Jordan. It’s an important movie, if not a particularly well-made movie. More to the point, I’d venture that Fruitvale Station offers another example of a lead performance whose caliber transcends the whole. (Much the same could be said of Octavia Spencer, whose performance as Oscar’s mother Wanda similarly stands in stark relief to the film’s mechanical narrative.) Perhaps you are familiar with the real-life events depicted on screen, or perhaps you haven’t ever heard of the name Oscar Grant. Fruitvale Station, through Jordan, will make you both empathize and sympathize with Oscar, but it will take a little too much artistic license to ensure that you empathize and sympathize with him. As is clear from the first moments of the film, the film exerts much energy to tug at your emotions when it didn’t have to do so.
Those first moments incorporate pixelated footage captured by a cell phone camera, one of the very cameras that captured the shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer at Fruitvale Station in Oakland following an incident on the subway as Oscar and his friends returned home following a night of New Year’s Eve revelry, as 2008 became 2009. That is not a spoiler, at least not in terms of Fruitvale Station’s narrative. Whether you followed this news story or not is immaterial to your engagement with the film. A gunshot sounds as the screen simultaneously and abruptly cuts to black, and immediately you know how the film will end.
Here’s the catch: whether you knew this tragic ending was in store as you sat down in the theater, Fruitvale’s director Ryan Coogler should not have opened his film in this way. Instead of allowing the movie to steadily and naturally build towards its shocking and heartbreaking climax, the effect of using the grainy video at the movie’s beginning is rather manipulative, because your knowledge of what’s coming infuses every successive scene with a heavy-handedness that distracts from the actual content of those scenes. Not helping matters in this regard, either, are Coogler’s decisions to compress virtually the entire narrative within the twenty-four hour timeframe preceding the shooting and to timestamp a substantial number of those scenes.
The film is not shy about suggesting Oscar’s troubles. He’s a low-on-cash parent who doesn’t always see eye to eye with his boss at the supermarket (Oscar doesn’t think his repeated tardiness should rob him of his paycheck) or girlfriend (and mother of the daughter he adores), who’d appreciate a little more commitment from him, and he sells pot to address the shortfall. But within the context of the compressed narrative, Oscar’s decision to quit dealing doesn’t give him enough credit. That he resolves to get straight on the very day of his shooting is too coincidental and literary for a true-to-life story. Every symbol, as when Oscar comforts a bleeding dog during its last breaths, is that much more overt. During every scene, you’re cognizant that this is the last time that Oscar does x: drops his daughter off at school, eats his mother’s cooking, celebrates a new year. A willingness to extent the film’s events over a longer period would have garnered more empathy, would have made Oscar’s willingness to change and improve come from a place more natural than storytelling contrivance. The scene that tells us the most about Oscar’s past and capacity for change is the one that takes place outside the twenty-four hour timeframe, in a flashback when Oscar was serving a prison sentence, and Wanda admonishes him for the wounds his absence is inflicting on his family, specifically his daughter. With talented actors like Jordan and Spencer, who both handsomely repay our emotional investment, this would have been a better place for our journey with Oscar to start.
I must say that the climax, when it comes, is tense and ominously heart-wrenching. Coogler succeeds in dramatizing the confusion that must have been present that night and the failure on behalf of law enforcement on hand to see through the confusion and instill calm, a failure that ultimately produces a profound and painful unfairness. Coogler’s ability to render this climactic sequence so forcefully underscores why some of Fruitvale’s creaky and paint-by-numbers mechanics are superfluous and even detract from the film’s power. Standing alone, the sequence is enough to elicit Coogler’s anger and sadness from each of us. The template for arousing anger and sadness and empathy is Do the Right Thing, a film that understands every character’s perspective even if it argues from a specific point of view. As Roger Ebert wrote, Spike Lee’s film “empathize[s] with all the participants,” and it’s a film that also knows fairness from unfairness, justice from injustice, right from wrong. Coogler’s after the same thing, and he knows when events cross the line that separates right from wrong, but Fruitvale doesn’t arrive at its climax as naturally or smoothly as does Do the Right Thing. Both climaxes are impressive and persuasive in their own right, and both films take place within the span of one day, but Fruitvale, in attempting to tell the story of one life in one day, arrives at its finale with a bit more narrative strain.
In spite of that, Jordan does bring Oscar to life. When Oscar is shot, we sense that a human being has been shot, and if not a perfect man then a complicated and empathetic one. And what is a person if not complicated and empathetic? Jordan, best known for his work as Wallace on The Wire and Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights, encounters Oscar somewhere between those two, he has Vince’s toughness but also Wallace’s eagerness and compassion. As with Wallace and Vince, Oscar is both young and startlingly alive, and so his death is all the more poignant and cruel.
That’s why Fruitvale Station is an important film even if it’s not technically a great one. We need reminders that Oscar is a real person, that people that don’t look like us are real people. That black people shouldn’t be made to feel like criminals and stopped-and-frisked because of the color of their skin, that the Drug War and the rate at which the state incarcerates minorities are bullshit and racist. Coogler can do better to make this point, and he certainly has the potential to do so. Luckily, an hour and a half with Michael B. Jordan does help all this to shine through.