When someone dies young—especially in a tragic fashion—it can be tempting for the bereaved to reduce the deceased to little more than an angelic, idealized figure. We’re so understandably wrapped up in our grief that we focus on that person’s most positive characteristics, setting aside everything about him or her that doesn’t fit that glowing remembrance. Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station aims for something far more difficult: mourning an ordinary, clearly flawed man without denying his inherent failings. This more nuanced portrait does nothing to diminish the shame of his death—if anything, it only intensifies its sting.
A prizewinner at Sundance and Cannes, Fruitvale Station is inspired by the last day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s life. Very early on New Year’s Day 2009, the Bay Area resident was returning with some buddies and his girlfriend to Oakland from San Francisco on the BART when an altercation on the train resulted in cops detaining Oscar and killing him. But Coogler’s feature debut only delves into those events at the very end—the bulk of the film is about the life Oscar was leading before his death.
Played by Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle), Oscar comes across as a nice-enough guy at first. Up early on New Year’s Eve, he spends time with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), before getting preparations together for a birthday party that evening for his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). But almost from the beginning, this seemingly idyllic scene is muddied: Sophina strongly suspects that Oscar is still screwing around with a local girl, an accusation he can’t quite convince her isn’t true.
For much of Fruitvale Station’s short running time—it’s less than 85 minutes long—Coogler and Jordan continue with this warts-and-all depiction of Oscar. Charming and goodhearted as Oscar may be, the guy has a fearsome temper, spent time in jail, sold drugs, and been unable to hold down a regular job because he’s lazy and directionless. On occasion, Coogler can oversell Oscar’s sweet nature—never more overtly than when Oscar befriends a stray dog, a clear symbol of his own untamed behavior. But for the most part, Fruitvale Station spends less time canonizing this kid than it does genuinely worrying about him. Oscar is a decent, likable person, and if he lived somewhere that offered more economic opportunity, he’d probably go far. But he resides in a poor section of the Bay Area far away from Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and so he turned to drug dealing, which a few years earlier landed him in the slammer and could possibly determine his destiny.
Coogler spends so much time on Oscar’s life before his fatal encounter with BART cops not just to offer a glimpse into the person he was, but also to suggest the person he might have become. Sparingly utilizing understated flashbacks that flesh out Oscar’s past, Fruitvale Station makes the case that he wasn’t a perfect person but, rather, someone who was still trying to find his path. Maybe he would have fallen back into selling drugs and ended up incarcerated again—just another grim statistic. Or maybe he wouldn’t have. But what makes the movie’s ending cut so deeply is that those questions will remain forever unanswered—his demons, aspirations and potential all snuffed out in one fell swoop.
At the movies, horrible real-life events (whether directly inspired or not) often come in the form of searing dramas like Do the Right Thing, Elephant or United 93, which in their own ways all try to make sense of tragedy. Fruitvale Station can sometimes be a little too manipulative and narratively convenient—two very different characters in Oscar’s orbit both happen to show up and become crucial elements in the BART killing—but it’s to Coogler’s credit that he doesn’t try to turn Oscar’s sad end into a profound statement about race relations or economic disparity. There are no easy boogeymen to blame for Oscar’s death—even the cops are allowed their humanity—and Fruitvale Station neither fans the flames nor offers any reassuring closing bromides. Coogler simply lets the audience absorb the cruel randomness of Oscar’s final hours in all their starkness.
Aided by a strong supporting cast, Jordan is quite good at making Oscar believably low-key and mundane. Coogler never lets the audience forget that Oscar had no idea his life was ending on that day, and Jordan gives the character an agreeable nonchalance, his worries only extending as far as finding a job and trying to put some distance between himself and his old ways. Intriguingly, Fruitvale Station argues that Oscar wasn’t really that special—he was just an average guy. And so the movie’s lack of grandness is quite appropriate: In its modest way, the film reminds us that nobody is really that special—but that we all still deserve better than what happened to Oscar.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal
Release Date: July 12, 2013