The real phone camera footage of the death of 22 year-old Oscar Grant during New Year’s Eve celebrations opens ‘Fruitvale Station’ and it’s tragic to watch a young life snuffed out carelessly by police officers. Shortly after, writer/director Ryan Coogler rewinds back to a dramatisation of the last 24 hours of Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) life. The film is a powerful acknowledgement of existence when the value of a human life seems to have been forgotten in a ‘gun happy’ American culture.
The forgone conclusion allows Coogler to wade through the cloud that hangs over ‘Fruitvale Station’ and establish who Grant was as a person. Grant is trying to support his partner and young daughter while swaying between casual work and selling drugs. The latter career option is a last resort, and flashbacks reveal Grant has spent time in jail as a result of his flaunt in the narcotics business. Grant has the aspirations of a family man but there is a rage that burns inside, and Coogler shows it exploding on a few occasions to show the character’s demons emerge. The point of the exercise is to show that Grant was a fairly normal African-American who lived. Grant’s image has appeared in media around the world, mainly via the footage of his demise, but sometimes a victim of a crime can be perceived as another brick in the wall of an ongoing problem. Coogler makes sure to acknowledge that Grant’s story matters and it sends a strong message.
Coogler uses the context and low socioeconomic setting to display all the characters, no matter the colour their skin or sexual preference, as equals. Grant meets a young middle-aged white couple expecting their first child and empathises with his male counterpart about the hardships of raising a family. Coogler even makes his own “peace train” toward the finale with Grant inbound to New Year’s celebrations with people from different racial backgrounds partying together. As the train moves past at high speed it looks as if all the passengers blur together in harmonious union. Coogler is sending out a call for peace by showing how much everyone has in common rather than focusing on what tears people apart.
‘Fruitvale Station’ does stray into tricky territory with how much Coogler uses the known ending to bear down on the audience with guilt. There are scenes where characters overemphasise the decision making process that will lead to the final events of the film. The scene where Grant’s mother (Octavia Spencer) suggests taking the train is strenuous because the real life events dictate there is no choice in the matter. Rather than feeling like organic conversations these moments are too forced as if the film’s (and real life) outcome wasn’t tragic enough.
Jordan’s performance is superb and he effortless transitions from charming to thug in an instant. The actor gives Grant so much life and exuberance as well as carrying the pain of his mistakes and hope for a better future. It’s hard not to watch Jordan without thinking of a young Denzel Washington but this comparison is sure to get tired quick in 2013. Melonie Diaz is exceptionally good as Grant’s partner and Ariana Neal (playing their daughter) lights up every scene she’s in.
‘Fruitvale Station’ is a cry for peace while reminding the world never to forget the lives lost to injustice.
The Popcorn Junkie