The tragic true tale of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident gunned down by an overzealous cop on New Year’s Day 2009, forms the basis of Ryan Coogler’s hauntingly powerful feature debut, Fruitvale Station. Opening with shaky archival mobile phone footage of the incident that sparked outrage across the US, Coogler gives us a glimpse of Grant’s fate before unveiling the story of the man who ultimately lies behind the statistic.Over the course of New Year’s Eve, Grant (a soaring Michael B. Jordan) is revealed to be a doting father and a loving son, a regular family man trying to get back on his feet having lost his job but who harbours a mean streak that threatens to derail his efforts to keep his life on track. Evidently, Grant has a past, but Coogler is determined to paint a compassionate picture that shatters any preconceptions or stereotypes his violent fate might harbour in his audience.
For the most part it’s an effective trope. Grant’s playful interactions with his young daughter, rejection of his past affiliations with drugs and even his selfless empathy for an injured dog ensure that he comes across as overwhelmingly sympathetic. However, so intent is Coogler on convincing us of Grant’s good character and normality that certain scenes feel forced, lack credibility and actually have the opposite desired effect, with Coogler’s at times eulogistic screenplay trying that little bit too hard to convince, whereas a defter touch would have sufficed.
By the time Grant, girlfriend Sophina (an unconvincing Melonie Diaz) and his friends descend on San Francisco for New Year celebrations there’s an overwhelming feeling of impending tragedy in the face of such hope. With his fate secured, Grant is a veritable tragic hero, built up only to be so cruelly knocked down through sheer chance and misfortune.
For a debut feature, Coogler can be commended for his directorial eye. His natural, documentary-style direction is effective enough, although his persistence with the gimmicky on-screen display of Grant’s mobile screen does grate. There’s also a sense that the film should end where it began, but Coogler seemingly couldn’t resist an unnecessarily sentimental epilogue that only serves to dilute the emotional impact of what has come before.
Jordan is outstanding, perfectly capturing the conflicted essence of a man who was so desperately trying to do the right thing despite his troubled past.
Fruitvale Station’s power lies in Jordan’s ability to evoke such sympathy for a flawed and very human young man. And while Coogler isn’t wholly successful in constructing a narrative that doesn’t come off as slightly worthy, that doesn’t take away from the fact that herein lies an important film elevated by a towering central performance.