Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland California 22 year old Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a police officer after being unwillingly involved in a minor scuffle on a train and being apprehended with his friends on the platform. This is the story of the last 24 hours of Oscar’s (B.Jordan) life as he tries to finally turn his back on a life of crime and be the devoted father, boyfriend and son that he wants to be.
Fruitvale Station is one of those films where it is almost impossible to include spoilers in a review; it opens by showing actual footage taken on someone’s phone of the incident in which Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer. Some films have a sudden death that shocks us, well with Fruitvale Station it is the impending tragedy that awaits the protagonist that hangs like a heavy weight over everything we see within the narrative until the film’s tragic conclusion.
I personally have no idea of what exactly is fictional or isn’t in this film with regards to what happened to Oscar Grant during the day before he was killed, but if Fruitvale Station were a pure fiction then many of the developments within the narrative would be embarrassingly clichéd. Scenes of Oscar throwing away drugs into the sea, begging for his job back, talking about proposing to his girlfriend (Diaz), asking his girlfriend if she would just rather stay in on New Year’s eve and his mother (Spencer) telling Oscar to take the train instead of driving are just a few examples of scenes (whether they are true or not) that seem to almost hammer home too hard to impending sense of tragedy. The raw emotion from the fact this is a true and very tragic story is obviously the main angle writer/director Ryan Cooglar goes for and it does feel that in the film’s first two thirds he is perhaps trying to overdo the feeling of impending tragedy, which does threaten to undermine everything.
Thankfully it does not, Cooglar does make a slight attempt to balance things with flashbacks showing Grant when in prison being visited by his mother or when his girlfriend rightfully berates him about the fact he has been caught cheating on her. However on the whole, the first two thirds of Fruitvale Station are competently made, but it almost seems like even Cooglar is more focussed on the film’s finale. What makes proceedings so much more watchable is the performance by Michael B. Jordan; appearing in every scene, he is a superb screen presence and elevates what could have been a slightly clichéd narrative to give us a protagonist to truly care about.
It is when Fruitvale Station enters its inevitably tragic final third that Cooglar’s talent as screenwriter and director really show through, producing an undeniably devastating final third. Oscar Grant may have ultimately been just another statistic and his death (or perhaps murder is a more accurate word) did start protests; but ultimately he was a father, boyfriend, son and friend, and to those that knew him his death was a devastating tragedy, the tragic nature of his death is only exacerbated by the circumstances in which he died. It is in this final third that Fruitvale Station becomes a genuinely moving drama. The whole sequences in both the train and then the platform are very well made, with a true sense of tension, claustrophobia and injustice. As tragedy unfolds Octavia Spencer gives a truly devastating performance as Oscar’s mother, but it is in the film’s very final scene that Cooglar show’s he is a filmmaker to watch. Without giving too much away, the amount of actual screenplay and what should be left for the audience to fill in afterwards is judged perfectly and produces a truly devastating conclusion to the film that stays in the memory for a long time.
Despite a superb leading performance from Michael B. Jordan, the first two thirds may often lag, but an ultimately devastating and very well made final third that is told with genuine passion for its subject matter makes Fruitvale Station an ultimately very well made and genuinely moving drama.