When a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot Oscar Grant in the back in 2009, it caused an immediate firestorm. The incident happened while Grant was being detained at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day.
The event, which was caught on camera by numerous witnesses, landed on YouTube, making it a crime that could be instantly parsed and discussed worldwide.
Four years later, it likely would’ve been a victim of our consume-and-throw-away news cycle were it not for the efforts of writer/director Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native. Coogler has dramatized the events in Fruitvale Station, a movie that attempts to document the last day of Grant’s life.
The film does not lionize Oscar Grant; it tries to show the full measure of the former convict trying to get his life in order.
Thankfully, the film does not lionize Grant (Michael B. Jordan); it tries to show the full measure of the man. Grant was a former convict who was trying to get his life back together.
As shown by the film, though, he often sabotaged his own efforts, showing up late for jobs or cheating on his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he had a daughter. He also had a close relationship with his mother (Octavia Spencer), but it wasn't without its ups and downs.
During several scenes, audience members must remember the disclaimer, “based on a true story.” Although Coogler did deep research to understand who Grant was and what he did that day, in certain moments, only one person could have known what Grant was doing: Grant himself. That includes one scene where Grant encounters a dog at a gas station, which could be considered highly manipulative.
But if you can forgive the few scenes with artistic license, the film is a substantially powerful piece, made all the more impressive because it’s Coogler’s debut feature film. He shows skill at pacing, as the brief 24-hour period in which the film is set is neither rushed nor drawn out, giving the inevitable conclusion the impact it deserves.
Coogler also elicits fine performances from the cast. Jordan has been a rising star since his time on The Wire, and this could be the role that finally puts him on the A-list. Just like the story, he plays Grant as neither perfect nor a thug; he’s just someone trying to survive day to day. Diaz and Spencer both make the most of their screen time as the women who love the man Grant could be, but who are also frustrated by his failings.
Fruitvale Station does not attempt to provide any answers — even if there were any to be had. Rather, it’s a brief but intense look into the life of an ordinary man, one that will leave the viewer hungry for more from the talent involved and gutted over the tragic end to Oscar Grant’s life.