We walk into Fruitvale Station expecting to have our heart ripped out, and it is. A fictionalized account of the last day of Oscar Grant III’s life, the film opens with one of the real life cell-phone clips that captured the 22-year-old Black man—lying on his stomach, about to be handcuffed—being shot in the back by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) policeman Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale stop in Oakland. The film’s emotionally wrenching ending includes a reenactment of the murder and a delicate sketching of Grant’s grieving family, which includes his girlfriend, the mother of his young daughter.
What gives the film its power, though, is what 27-year-old first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler does between those two grueling bookends. He captures just how hard an ordinary life can be—the everyday struggles to make rent, to hold on to a crappy job, to beat back the past, to be a good father, son, and partner. Coogler’s film, imperfect in many ways, earns the audience’s tears simply by reminding them of Grant’s imperfect humanity.
After the clip plays out of Oscar’s real-life murder, the film cuts to early morning New Year’s Eve, 2008. Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan, late of The Wire) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) are in bed having a tense standoff over his sleeping with another woman. “It was just that one time,” he insists. “You got caught that one time,” she volleys back. Their kindergarten-age daughter knocking on the door (asking for her daddy, whom she clearly adores, and who clearly adores her back) diffuses the moment.
From there the film takes us through Grant’s day. With the exception of a flashback to Grant’s brief stint in prison the year before (where we learn of his many run-ins with the law), the film sticks to the last day of Grant’s life, and that’s all we need. Though the flashback prison scene ends with a painful parting between Grant and his mother Wanda (flawlessly played by Octavia Spencer), the Oscar we see on this last day is a dutiful son and brother, shopping for food for his mother’s birthday party and gently pranking his sister. We see him grapple with having to sell weed to make ends meet, and making rash, even foolish decisions when he decides to try to go legit.
But it’s his relationship with Sophina that really crackles in the film. It’s through this connection that we see some of his greatest struggles—to be faithful, to be a breadwinner, to chart a big-picture course for his life. Jordan and Diaz, who are both fantastic in the film, have great chemistry. As they and Coogler map out the dynamics of the relationship, the audience is privy to the ebb and flow of the couple’s love, frustration, lust, disappointment, and very fragile trust, and it’s all recognizably true to life.
Shot on 16mm film, Fruitvale Station’s low-budget look works to its advantage. It signals the urgency of the narrative, but also the quotidian grit (and beauty) of Grant’s everyday life. Coogler’s effort to fully humanize Grant—to show both his tender sides as well as a hotheaded impetuousness—illustrate the director’s sensitivity and good instincts, but they don’t always pay off.
There’s a scene where Oscar, pumping gas at a gas station, watches in horror as a dog gets hit by a car. After shouting epithets at the driver, who never stops, Oscar runs into the street to cradle the injured dog. The moment feels false, contrived, trying too hard to illustrate Oscar’s innate goodness, and it’s the one moment in the film that even the gifted Jordan can’t sell. But it also distills the film’s core weakness of heavy-handed foreshadowing. It’s a problem artists have grappled with forever when their subject is death and the audience knows from the start how things will end.
Far too much of Coogler’s dialogue is laden with portent, and the way he places the camera and edits his scenes presses the point of impending tragedy too heavily. It’s not necessary and after a while becomes tedious. It’s the performances that keep elevating the script. Spencer and Diaz are flawless, and Jordan is proving himself to be one of our most talented young actors.
There’s a bit in the film where Oscar visits the supermarket that’s recently fired him. He has an explosive scene with the store manager that threatens to turn violent, but at that very moment, a young woman he’d been flirting with earlier as she shopped calls his name. Watching Jordan subtly shift body language as he transitions his character from menace to charmer is to witness a bit of poetry in action, and it’s moments like this that Fruitvale achieves its mission: capturing the nuances of a young Black man who was simply and complicatedly human.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Flaunt and L.A. Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions, recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award, was published in 2006.