This Sundance prize winner is overly schematic, but also hard-hitting in its outrage over a racially charged miscarriage of justice
Film Title: Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand
Running Time: 85 min
Three years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Florida, a young black man lost his life in a shooting at the Fruitvale light rail station in Oakland, California. The circumstances remain in dispute, but it seems clear that a police officer shot Oscar Grant III in the back and that the 21-year-old was unarmed.
The shooting has become one of many that highlight the risks African-Americans run just by being alive in public places. Yet the case may well have remained under-reported had it not been captured on camera-phone. The officer, who claimed he intended to use his Taser, was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Not surprisingly, many activists remain unhappy with the verdict.
Ryan Coogler’s dramatic recreation of events leading up to the tragedy rode the wave of outrage to take the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Fruitvale Station is an impressive piece of work. Well-acted, humane and free of hysteria, it offers a touching portrait of life in an underexposed corner of the Bay Area as it reveals the everyday irritations that dog the African-American community.
The film is, perhaps, a little schematic in its characterisation. There is at least one too many lumbering metaphors. But, with his first film, Coogler reveals the right sort of chops to stay the distance in this film-making lark.
We begin with actual footage of the killing on New Year’s Day in 2009. The film then flashes back to the preceding morning to find Mr Grant (a strong Michael B Jordan) preparing himself for his mom’s birthday. He is depicted as a largely decent sort of fellow. Oscar loves his young daughter and, though he admits to infidelities, he remains attached to the girl’s mother (Melonie Diaz).
It transpires that Oscar has been concealing important information from his loved ones. Having turned up late once too often, he has lost his job at the local supermarket and is failing in his efforts to persuade the owner to relent.
Later, as he prepares to hit the town, Grant’s mom persuades him to take the train rather than drive his car. It’s a poignant moment that we suspect will resonate in the film’s later sections.
Shot with a mobile camera that races to keep up with its hurtling protagonist, the film makes good use of its talented actors. Octavia Spencer is reliably charismatic and touching as Grant’s mother. Jordan is consistently naturalistic. Our awareness of impending doom adds menace to scenes that might otherwise seem inconsequential.
Yet Fruitvale Station does not wholly convince. It’s hard to escape the notion that the film’s version of Grant has been carefully calibrated to be just nice enough to scare up empathy and just mischievous enough to take some polish of his character. He’s done some bad things, but he now seems to be sorting out his life.
This is a very neat state of affairs for a film that, elsewhere, trades in a school of naturalism that suggests early Ken Loach. An unfortunate scene involving an injured dog gestures towards the foretold catastrophe in the clumsiest and least subtle of fashions. Coogler does still seem to be finding his feet as a film-maker.
For all that, Fruitvale Station comes into in its own during a final tragic denouement that manages to spring surprises as it walks us through accident and outrage. The film has much to say about the unequal nature of American society. But it also has depressing lessons about the arbitrary nature of so many human tragedies.
If only Oscar had got on another carriage. If only he’d taken his car. Life can be a wretched business.