In 2009, Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a police officer who was attempting to subdue a group involved in an altercation on a train. In contrast with the officer’s violent action, most onlookers at the scene called the group of black men non-violent. When a cell-phone video shot from the train hit the web, protests broke out, and the offending officer was eventually jailed, though his sentence was much shorter than many would’ve liked. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station takes that amateur footage and works backwards, telling a bit of who Oscar is, and the events in his life that lead to him being shot on the platform that day.
Throughout the film we get to meet Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother, and an array of other people in his life. We see him interact with them, attempting to resolve his past flaws by being a better son, a better father, and a better boyfriend. He tries to improve himself, but as the day goes on, he realizes that’s much easier said than done. Still, he puts on a strong, happy exterior and strives to do everything he can for those around him all the way up until the moment when he’s shot in the back on the train platform.
In the attempt to show who Oscar is, the film is spot-on. Within the first minutes he’s established as a flawed, but good character, which is the simplest formula for any quality protagonist. Everything shown in the first part of the film continues to build those traits, showing more flaws, contrasted with more moments of kindness and selflessness. It’s an effective method for instantly allowing the audience to connect with the character, as Oscar feels genuine and real.
The character is built in a very effective way until the film uses an awkward flashback. Up until that point we learn everything about Oscar in organic ways, with an extremely natural feel. I’m never a big fan of flashbacks, even when they’re consistent and necessary. In this case, the flashback seems out of place and is jarring. While the information it reveals is necessary for later parts of the story to works, it seems there could have been a more effective way to handle that scene. Don’t get me wrong, on its own that scene is a great, but it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.
The film’s strongest element is without a doubt the acting. There’s hardly an actor in the cast who doesn’t turn in a near-perfect performance, but everyone else seems to pale in comparison to Jordan. He nails the character, showing uncertainty, mistakes, and yet a heart full of love in such an effective way that it’s almost painful to watch. There was no doubt that the train platform scene was going to be heart-wrenching, but it’s thanks to Jordan that the smaller problems, such as not being able to pay rent, become emotionally taxing experiences as well.
The cinematography has a wonderfully real feel to it, making it seem as if the audience is actually witnessing these events, going on Oscar’s journey with him, as opposed to just watching it on the big screen. But for all the excellent moments of beautiful camera work, there are moments of inconsistency: unnecessary pans, an overly shaky camera, and peculiar framing. The cinematography is saved though with the final scene, which is shot so frantically, yet so perfectly, that it greatly adds to the hectic situation that’s on the screen.
The story of Oscar’s life is an extremely entertaining one, even without the ending. This would’ve been a quality slice-of-life film if it had just showed him living his day, interacting with the interesting characters he does. It wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful without the ending, but it speaks volumes to both the writing and the acting that the film is so captivating, even before any of the more intense scenes happen.
That being said, the film still relies too heavily on the knowledge of what will happen at the end. Instead of telling this as an isolated story, it assumes that all viewers will be aware of the actual events. Director Ryan Coogler takes a step to ensure that by including a found footage clip of the incident at the beginning, but still, there are far too many lines and actions in the film that can only be appreciated with knowledge of the ending.
But all the flaws are rather minor in comparison with the film’s strengths. Between the quality story, the sharp writing, and the phenomenal performance by its lead, Fruitvale Station is an excellent movie about one man’s life and death.
Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar Grant as a complex and real person, making Fruitvale Station more than just the story of a death. In fact, it's a film full of life.