The powerfully dramatised true story that recreates the last day of a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, shot by railway police in the San Francisco Bay area on New Year’s Day 2009.
Fruitvale Station is based on the real-life killing, perceived to general outrage as racially motivated, of Oscar Grant. As happened with Trayvon Martin in Florida more recently, young black men are stereotypically seen as threatening or as troublemakers, particularly if in groups, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are vulnerable to violence or murder which goes unpunished. To show us the reality behind this stereotype, director Ryan Coogler, in his stunning feature debut, builds up a picture of Oscar Grant as the real unique living, breathing person he was, and why his life and his death matters: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper. When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar was shot by a railway police officer on the platform of Fruitvale Station, in the rapid transit system in Oakland, California. His death was filmed by several other passengers on their mobile phones. This fuzzy mobile phone footage opens the film, and it closes with Coogler’s dramatisation of that same scene. By then, we view it with much greater understanding. In between, Coogler creates a rounded portrait of Oscar during his last day on earth in a way that makes us see him as the individual he was, and experience his sudden, senseless killing as a tragedy rather than just another statistic.
Oscar (Michael B Jordan, Wallace in The Wire) is no saint. He has his faults. He has been in trouble with the law and spent time in prison. But he also has a family he is trying to support the best way he can with no regular income – a girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and adoring little daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). New Year’s Eve starts as the day Oscar feels he will turn his life round, though first he has to reconcile with Sophina about his infidelity. Then he drops Tatiana off at her nursery school and buys a big bag of crabs for the family meal of gumbo his mother Wanda (a dignified Octavia Spencer) will cook that evening for her birthday. He drives to the supermarket where he works – or rather, used to work until he lost his job two weeks ago for lateness, and where he tries unsuccessfully to convince the manager to let him have it back. We see him doing a spontaneous kindness there for a white female customer, the first of several kind acts during that day and evening – and we also see him selling weed.
He’s irresponsible and impulsive but he’s also a caring person, trying hard to make good and part of a close loving family. The big family get-together at his mother’s house for her birthday meal is a scene of warmth and love. She persuades Oscar and Sophina to go into San Francisco to see the New Year’s fireworks and take the train because, she believes, it will be safer for them than driving. On their way back, an unexpected sequence of events, ironically the result of a good deed Oscar did earlier in the day, turns an innocent night out into tragedy. He and his friends are attacked on the train by an old enemy from prison, but treated by the railway police as if they are the aggressors. Though not guilty of any wrongdoing, they are handcuffed and held face down on the platform, beaten with batons and, as they struggle, Oscar is shot by an officer, who later claimed to have confused his taser with a gun, and who ultimately received a prison sentence of only eleven months.
It’s an impressive debut for Coogler, supported and mentored by Forest Whittaker’s production company. He presents the last day of Oscar’s life verité-style, allowing events to speak eloquently for themselves. It adds up to a powerful condemnation of the kind of inherent institutional racism that sees young black men as somehow being ‘disposable’ without repercussions. Michael B Jordan brilliantly creates Oscar with all his contradictions. The performances overall of Oscar’s friends and family are perfectly judged, with the only hint of sentimentality in the film creeping in – perhaps excusably – with some of his little daughter’s dialogue. It’s a film that shines with passion and truth, and which you can’t help feeling ought to be compulsory viewing.
Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and previewed at Sundance London in 2014. It won the award for Best First Film in Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.