Already a hot-button item following screenings at Sundance and Cannes that reportedly reduced audiences to tears, Ryan Coogler’s potent Fruitvale Station, about the last day in the life of a 22-year-old black man who was killed while handcuffed at an Oakland, Calif., subway station on New Year’s Day, 2009, now has even more heat cranked up in the wake of the Trayvon Martin trial.
Opening with the terrifying cellphone video footage of Oscar Grant’s last moments – footage that contributed to the public outrage that broke out in the Bay area following the incident – Coogler’s movie then moves to the morning hours of Dec. 31, 2008: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-con with a drug-dealing past, a terminated job in a fish market, a Latina girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and a four-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal), is trying to make out with his girlfriend when little Tatiana comes to the door.
Instantly, we are made aware of a few things about Oscar that will remain in play until we arrive at the station: Oscar is a decent, responsible, family-oriented guy with the odds stacked against him, prepared to take his daughter to daycare and mindful that it’s his mother’s birthday – but none of this matters. That opening has embedded the inevitable in our minds, and no amount of niceness, creatively condensed and embellished though some of it may be, will save this man from the incident we’ve just witnessed.
Shot largely on hand-held super-16mm video and unfolding with a grainy veneer of docudramatic realism, Coogler’s first movie is a triumph of social-realist emotional engagement. Thanks partly to the casting of the magnetic Michael B. Jordan (The Wire’s similarly doomed teenage project victim, Wallace), but largely to the filmmaker’s careful observation of heart-tugging domestic incidentals – Oscar’s promise to his daughter that they’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese the next day, his ‘Happy Birthday!!’ text to his mother (Octavia Spencer), the trip to the store he was recently fired from for birthday dinner crabs (from which he calls his grandmother to help a white woman with the rudiments of a fish fry) – Fruitvale Station starts stockpiling emotional ammunition from the beginning, building to almost excruciating proportions by the time the man says goodbye to his daughter before boarding the train to his appointment with that real-life footage. Of one thing in this movie there is no doubt: For a first film (Coogler is 27) Fruitvale Station is a powerhouse of sustained empathetic engagement, and as difficult to resist as Jordan’s starburst of a smile. But therein also lies its limitations.
Without even delving into the movie’s well-documented embellishments – an incident involving a doomed stray pit bull, the phoning of grandma for fish fry wisdom, an incident during a prison visit with Oscar’s mother that introduces the ugly white guy who will spark the fateful brawl on the subway – the fact is that Fruitvale Station makes the case that the tragedy of Oscar Grant isn’t that he was a black man killed by a white cop under hair-raisingly unjustifiable circumstances, but that he was such a sweet black man. For this is what, more than anything else, the film wishes to stress: Although marked by a checkered, drug-dealing past, and prone to (under the circumstances) perfectly reasonable fits of rage, he was a good father, son, grandson, friend, citizen and animal-lover, and so his final destruction is felt on those terms. We feel the death on the platform so acutely not because it’s a stupid act of randomness, but hardly untypical racist violence, but because we’ve come to love this man.
This is not to suggest that Oscar Grant wasn’t lovable – most accounts suggest he was – nor that there’s no place for sentiment in movies that deal with real-life racial issues, or even that Coogler is wrong in his apparent determination to bring some humanity to a figure otherwise likely just to be regarded as a statistic, a name, or, worse, just another unarmed black man gunned down by a white man in 21st century America. The issue is whether Oscar Grant and the tragedy he represents – an ongoing tragedy now freshly re-kindled because of the Martin case – needs to be so emotionally manipulated in order to engage our sympathy and spark our outrage.
Perhaps that’s the case. But if it is, the problem concerning race and violence in America is actually far worse than one might otherwise imagine. For it suggests that it’s not tragedy enough on its own. Of course, it’s a movie, and movies aren’t real life. But when movies open with such a socio-politically explosive incident captured directly from real life, then proceed to build back toward its fictionalized re-enactment with so many acts of irresistible dramatic enhancement, you have to wonder why the facts aren’t heartbreaking all on their own.