With its national release coinciding with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, Ryan Coogler’s semi-documentary dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man, by a San Francisco transit cop in 2009 carries an especially powerful wallop. But “Fruitvale Station”—the name of the subway stop where the tragedy occurred in the early hours of New Year’s Day—would be a viscerally wrenching experience in any context. Filled with foreboding from the first frame but stylistically naturalistic, it recreates the incident from the dead man’s perspective in a way that makes it unbearably sad while raising questions about the state of our purportedly “post racial” society—and no little anger at how the judicial system handled the result.
Michael B. Jordan draws a charismatic figure as Grant, who’s portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive light despite indications of his troubled background. Over the course of the hours preceding the shooting—shown upfront in grainy camera-phone footage taken by onlookers that turned the incident into a cause célèbre—Coogler stacks the deck by depicting Grant leading a loving domestic life with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their little daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), preparing for his mother’s birthday celebration, making a decision to get out of drug-dealing, tending to a stray dog hit by a passing car, and helpfully putting a grocery shopper (Ahna O’Reilly)in touch with his grandmother (Marjorie Shears) about a cooking issue—all while struggling with his own financial problems and agreeing to help his sister with her rent. But while the portrait is undoubtedly an admiring one, the film does use flashbacks to show Grant in prison—presumably over his involvement in the drug trade—and having an argument with his mother Wanda (Olivia Spencer) over his incarceration, as well as arguing with his boss over the job he’s lost because of his failure to show up on time. So while the picture drawn of Grant shows some serious flaws, it basically shows a man trying to turn his life around.
Similarly, the recreation of the events of New Year’s Eve and its aftermath portrays Grant in a positive light—persuading a ship-owner to open his restroom not only for his girlfriend but for a pregnant woman as well—and trying to avoid trouble on the train ride back home, and whether it’s accurate or not, the presence on the train of not only a fellow Grant had irritated in jail but the woman he’s helped earlier in the day (who becomes one of the people who record what happens) strains credulity. There’s also more of a hint of the thug to the chief cop (Kevin Durand) who overreacts to the ruckus on the train. But overall the incident is portrayed in an emotionally effective way, and certainly the hospital scenes that follow are potent, with Spencer bringing all her dramatic heft to a mother’s torment while struggling to keep others from turning violent. The final printed report on how the case played out legally doesn’t have to italicize things in order to point out how imperfectly the justice system operates when it comes to such episodes—a lesson the nation has recently relearned.
There will, of course, be those who complain that “Fruitvale Station” is one-sided, and that’s a valid observation. Whether it’s a valid criticism is another matter. Coogler’s film undoubtedly presents the incident from the point of view of Grant and his family and friends, and in the process it may well go the extra mile in making their case. But it does so expertly from the perspective of activist filmmaking, with Coogler’s direction enhanced by Rachel Morrision’s camerawork, which uses the handheld technique without causing seasickness, and the crisp editing of Michael P. Shawyer and Claudia S. Castello, who bring the picture in at a brisk 85 minutes. Others can offer different takes on the circumstances of Grant’s death if they choose. But they’ll find it difficult to equal the compelling quality of this one, which is not only emotionally devastating but, at a time when yet another such incident has gripped the nation, should help encourage much-needed reflection about the realities of life for many in present-day America.