Fruitvale Station will likely play to less-engaged audiences in the rest of the country than it will in the Bay Area, where Oscar Grant's name is still invoked during any number of protests. The shooting death of the unarmed, 22-year-old Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in the wee hours of New Year's Day, 2009, sparked protests that turned violent after multiple cell phone videos of the incident surfaced. Mehserle claimed he shot Grant by accident when the officer mistook his gun for a taser; he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent a year in jail. That verdict sparked another angry protest and is still considered by some to be a miscarriage of justice.
The film, however, is not a polemic against Mehserle or the police. Mehserle's name, in fact, is never mentioned on-screen, in the aftermath summary given at the end, or in the credits. Many viewers may even miss exactly which of the officers portrayed in the film did the shooting. The only clue as to who fired flashes by quickly, when an officer listed in the credits as"Caruso" (clearly meant to be Anthony Pirone, portrayed here as the primary provocateur, who in real life was fired by BART for escalating the confrontation) queries a young, confused-looking colleague: "What the f*** happened?" As to that officer's motive in the shooting, the movie is agnostic.
Rather, Fruitvale Station, the first feature for writer/director and Oakland native Ryan Coogler, is a character study of a young man wrestling with his demons and the heavy burden of his past as he tries for a fresh start. With the exception of a flashback, the film takes place entirely on the last day of Grant's life, but is economical enough in its storytelling to provide a compelling sense of the conflicting impulses that roiled him.
Michael B. Jordan, best known for roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, effectively imbues Grant with a restless, lost quality as he tries to cope with the narrowing choices left to him by his status as a young father, ex-con, and recently fired employee. Grant, as portrayed here, is clever but impulsive, a family man but also a player who has earned little trust from his girlfriend and still flirts with strangers. In one scene, he hits on a young white hipster buying fish at a grocery store, but ends up putting her on the phone with his grandmother, who advises her on frying techniques. The scene shows the sort of spontaneous, improvisational encounter created by a particular type of charismatic personality, the kind whose self-interest and altruism frequently bleed into one another, and whose poorly thought out choices can have terrible repercussions.
It's also indicative of someone who thinks he can charm his way out of or into anything. When finally admitting to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) that he lost his job (two weeks after the fact), Grant tells her he thought he could talk his boss into re-hiring him, a notion she dismisses as typically unrealistic. In a flashback to Grant's incarceration at San Quentin, he talks to his visiting mom (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) about how smart his daughter is and what schools she can go to, all the while sporting an ugly welt on his face that he refuses to discuss. His mother tells him she won't come to visit anymore, and in one of the film's more powerful scenes, walks away as he is held back by prison guards while yelling, "Let me get a hug, mom!" And in his most fantasy-ridden and consequential notion of all, Grant stands up from the platform during the confrontation with BART police because he thinks he can talk his way out of detainment.
Coogler shoots the many scenes with family extremely tight, conveying an intimate, almost claustrophobic feel. It's hard to say if the latter is intentional, but that would agree with the script's subtle conviction that it took a village to keep Grant on the straight and narrow and that his family considered close monitoring vital. Whether it's an admonition by his mother to not use the phone while driving, or by his grandmother not to call from work, that sort of solicitousness for a personality like Grant's, at least as depicted here, would most likely have been a double-edged sword. It's ironic that it was Grant's mother who advised him to use BART that night, so he'd avoid drinking and driving. "Don't make me follow you guys," she says. "Remember prom?" The outcome of her counsel is ironic -- and devastating -- but the idea has also been floated that for Grant, danger lurked on both the road taken and the one not.
Despite such character flaws, Grant is depicted as someone with great sensitivity, a man who breaks down crying after a dog is struck by a car. "Somebody help," he cries hopelessly. It's a schmaltzy scene, yet there's also something potently raw in the image of him holding the dead dog, considering what occurs later. Likewise, shots of an unsettled Grant driving around the streets of Oakland, where he had worked, have an almost poetic quality, and residents especially may view his tale as a microcosm of the types of painful stories found in that city in particular.
Not every scene works. Parts of the encounter with the girl at the grocery store feel contrived, as does a chance meeting on New Year's Eve between Grant and a web entrepreneur. And it may seem churlish to criticize a quiet and steadfast film like this one for not aspiring to greater scope, but the climax in which BART officer "Caruso" runs roughshod over Grant and his friends does provoke the question of just what was going on in the cop's head. While for some, police misconduct, especially as it relates to young black men, is an unremitting fact of life that needs no further explanation, others may want at least a partial dissection of the attitudes and pressures behind such bad behavior. In other words, a film about the 24 hours in the lives of these BART police leading up to the heinous incident might be a project for another day.
Fruitvale Station is bookended by the famous cellphone video and real footage from a 2013 rally calling for justice for Oscar Grant. In light of the Zero Dark Thirty controversy, one wonders nowadays about taking a fictional work, with its dramatic and commercial exigencies, at face value when it comes to understanding a real event and a real person, and the interplay between the two. But that is not so much an issue here. BART paid close to $3 million in settlements to Grant's family; an officer was convicted and another fired; and there is no one who views what happened as anything other than an abysmal tragedy. A year ago I talked to Grant's uncle, Cephus Johnson, about the upcoming film, which was made, he said, after many conversations with Coogler and producer Forrest Whitaker. "I think the community as well as the world should know who [Oscar Grant] was and what happened to him," he said. "[The film] will humanize Oscar as being a young black man that was tragically murdered on a platform for no apparent reason."
(I also talked to Mehserle's defense attorney, who said "I would hope the movie would capture ... the shock and the horror that was on Johannes's face ... right after the shooting." I think the film actually does do that, although in a very quick shot.)
Fruitvale Station certainly does humanize Grant, in a way that turns someone who has existed as a mere headline for many and a symbol for many more, into a person with hopes, dreams, and flaws. This is an impressive first feature for Ryan Coogler. (Recommended)