Sincerely made and palpably perceptive, Fruitvale Station is a factual, racially motivated miscarriage-of-justice film guaranteed to stir the emotions of humane people everywhere in its depiction of the murder of an innocent black man at the mercy of law enforcement gone seriously schizophrenic. I’m not sure what its impact will be, except to make us collectively shake our heads in shame over a tragedy that was not only unnecessary but totally avoidable. The police blotters are stained with similar stories of racial profiling and incidents of reckless police violence against minorities that go unpunished. You feel rage just knowing this stuff happens in an enlightened society, but the value of chronicling it over and over in the movies is obvious, especially in a movie as cogent and wrenching as Fruitvale Station.
Oscar Grant III was a 22-year-old from the San Francisco suburbs returning home on a crowded subway from an inner-city New Year’s Eve party in the early hours of January 1, 2009, when he allegedly engaged in a rowdy fracas with some other passengers. When the train stopped at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, a deranged white transit cop dragged Mr. Grant from the car, threw him on the platform and shot him in the back, killing him. San Francisco went ballistic, but after a long criminal investigation, the officer served only a year in jail. This movie scrapes the scabs from old wounds and revisits the pain.
Neutering some of the details (according to the newspaper reports, Mr. Grant, who had done time in San Quentin on previous criminal charges, was not entirely blameless), writer and first-time director Ryan Coogler makes it clear whose side he is on. Mr. Grant was a devoted young man who worshipped his mother and loved his girlfriend and new baby daughter but turned to dealing drugs to make ends meet. A great deal of the film’s impact is due to the sympathetic portrayal by charismatic newcomer Michael B. Jordan in the leading role. As the film follows him through the day leading up to his death, the actor manages to successfully convey the strengths and flaws in Mr. Grant’s troubled character that made him an object of controversy in the press—conflicts that are not always spelled out in the script.
In scenes with his long-suffering mother (another magnificent arrow-through-the-heart performance by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer from The Help) he is perfection. But he is also violent, irresponsible, a drug abuser and a habitual liar. Strapped for cash, behind in the rent, losing his job, he is desperately entangled in the travails of being poor and black, fighting the stigma of a prison record with no employment and no prospects for the future. Neither a hero nor a thug, Mr. Jordan gives him three dimensions, making him vulnerable. You find yourself dreading his mistakes but liking him anyway. After he becomes the victim of a white racist cop, he lands in the hospital in critical condition with one lung removed and internal bleeding, with his frantic friends and family at his side. Witnesses recorded the event with cellphones and video cameras, inciting San Francisco to its worst series of riots since the murder of Harvey Milk. Fruitvale Station lacks the same global impact as Milk, but it’s still a harrowing film worth seeing and honoring for boldness and insight. It’s one of the most sobering must-see movies of the summer.
Written by Ryan Coogler
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer
Running time: 90 mins.
Rating: 3/4 stars