Set a few years back on New Year’s Eve, Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant III. Oscar was killed that night, unarmed, and in front of many people who saw it or caught it on video. The incident made headline news as the video of this young man’s death hit all the major news circuits. I guess that 2009 was a busy time in my life because I don’t remember ever hearing about this story. I should have but I don’t and I am kind of glad I didn’t because looking back on it with the film, the video, and some research I understand that there is nothing really to understand about it. Nothing. The events that transpired and the witness testimonies don’t leave a full picture of what happened. It is all up to what we as individuals assumed, based on our own experiences and emotions, happened that night. Isn’t it scary that assumptions rule the day and consensus can be manipulated not by facts or by logic (or lack there of) but by the strongest emotions? Fruitvale Station is a well-made and powerful look at Oscar Grant III. It is a story of a man that was tragically taken from this earth by events that should of never happened. It is an assumption about an event that has left a family broken and has shaken our society’s search of equality for all.
As I said before, Fruitvale Station is the story of Oscar who we see during the last day of his life. He is a young dad who is torn between a life of doing right and a life of making money no matter the cost. Oscar, who is played by Michael B. Jordan, spends his last day trying to get his job back, picking up gifts for his mom’s birthday, and spending time with his daughter. He is not a perfect person, actually far from it, but during the course of the film we see a character that is good. He has good intentions and spends a lot of his time trying to do right by his family. At the beginning of the film we get to see some of the camera footage of the events that transpired at the end of the film so even if you are ignorant of the situation like me, you still know what will happen. Even with the film moving very slow revealing characters and connections, it still has a sense of dread all throughout it, as the audience knows Oscar’s fate. This leads to a movie that takes its time expanding characters even as it seems to move at a quick pace. The tension established is great as the movie never drags and the character moments are given a tragic sort of tone. Yea, Ryan Coogler, has directed and written a very well made film but the movie’s real talent is Michael B. Jordan. You may have seen him as Vince in Friday Night Lights or as one of the Chronicle trio but this is the movie and character that will be his big break. Jordan is excellent here as he is able to play Oscar as both a caring and self-destructive individual. Even if the movie does try to immortalize Oscar (I’ll get into that the more later) Jordan plays the role well when he has to deal with a conflicted yet gentle soul. He is an excellent actor and it is about time he was given a role to show off his incredible talents.
Coogler is able to take this story and make it into a wonderful film but as I left the theater I thought about who was Oscar Grant III? So I did some research and looked at the facts in the case and saw that the movie (admittedly so) takes some Hollywood liberties. These liberties are what have me torn over the film. No doubt it is a wonderful movie and it makes you think but it seems to assume a lot. Honestly it is hard to not assume in this case as Oscar’s character remains a sort of mystery (arrests and family claims seem to contradict each other). Coogler apparently did his homework by interviewing all the right people and mapping out the day but Coogler’s humanizing of Oscar doesn’t really have much behind it. Coogler let’s his emotions build up this character to make the movie more poignant. He does it to tell a “real life” story that feels manipulated to fit how Coogler saw the events happen. Not the facts, just Coogler’s own assumptions. Coogler doesn’t paint him as a saint so to speak but he is more forgiving and almost indulgent in the character for circumstance sake. Scenes are constructed out of thin air (the pit-bull scene) and his redemption and actions at the end of the film just don’t feel right because they just seem to be too much of a work of fiction. Even the event with the police seems a bit cloudy as the only person who knows whether or not Grant’s death was murder or an accident is the cop that shot him (who has stated his death was a mistake as he thought he was grabbing for his taser gun.) and who knows if he is telling the truth. Either way the events depicted in the film are constructed in a way to fit the story Coogler wants to tell. I guess I understand that almost all historical or “true life stories” have their own prejudices and I forgive Fruitvale Station for that but I can’t love it because of it. I felt turned off by the movie, which deals with a very ambiguous person and event in a manor that feels so definitive.
Fruitvale Station is a very well made movie with a brilliant performance at the heart of it. It is worthy of the praise it has gotten and is most likely an early favorite for some award season love. At its core it is a movie about the desire to live a happy life no matter the color of your skin. It is a wonderful film if you can assume along with it. If you can wade past the desire for facts and let your emotions overwhelm you, then you will love Fruitvale Station. If you can’t assume along with it then you’ll be like me, walking out of the movie theater thinking, “what really happened that night”?