Just after ringing in the new year 2008, a young black man was shot in the back by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. It was a huge local news story at the time, but likely today many people across the country are unaware of the incident -- which, as is often the case in these situations, has some gray areas. The film Fruitvale Station aims not just to tell the story, but to tell the world who Oscar Grant was.
As portrayed --excellently -- by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Oscar was a troubled but good young man with a checkered past, trying to become honest for the sake of his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter. We see one flashback to time Oscar served in prison, a beautifully executed scene in which he is confronted by his mother (Octavia Spencer), but are not told what he was in for. It really doesn't matter. What matters is the near-altercation with a fellow inmate Oscar later crosses paths with on the train on New Year's Eve.
The whole movie is leading up to that point, and this is made clear from the very beginning of the film. It opens with real-life cell phone footage of several BART police struggling with some detained men, one in particular, and then the sound of gunfire. Anyone unfamiliar with the news story (as I was) will not know whether or not he was killed. It's easy enough to find out. Either way, the story then moves to the beginning of that New Year's Eve day, and there's a clinging sense of dread all the while, because we know what we're headed toward.
It's tempting to say Fruitvale Station isn't as heavy as those who might want to avoid it are expecting, but that wouldn't quite be honest. This is a pretty heavy film. It's not going to leave you scarred for life, but neither is it something you want to watch if you're just looking for a fun time at the movies. This is not a fun movie; it's a serious re-telling of a tragic event. There are some light-hearted moments but they only serve to underscore the imminent tragedy.
That said, it's almost perfectly structured. It moves along relatively slowly at first, but then it becomes clear that first-time feature writer-director Ryan Coogler's aim is to paint a portrait of this young man, his family, and his struggles and hopes in life. It's clearly sympathetic to Oscar, making no mistake that Oscar did not deserve what happened to him. But it also wisely avoids portraying Oscar as some kind of squeaky-clean saint. He's committed crimes, he has a potentially dangerous temper that he seems only barely able to keep in check. He does indeed get into a fight on a crowded train on New Year's Eve. Coogler includes these details and in so doing demonstrates how not relevant they are to Oscar getting shot.
We are given no details about the shooter besides what witnesses saw at the scene. It's later noted that the man claimed to have mistaken his gun for his Taser (a pretty jaw dropping mistake), and Coogler stages the scene so that it's up to the audience to decide the degree to which the shooting was deliberate or a mistake. The film makes the right choice in not choosing its own verdict of the officer, and instead simply pays tribute to a flawed but dynamic young man who was wrongfully shot.
Of course, in all likelihood there are many details that this movie over-simplifies -- it's based on fact rather than actual fact, after all, and artistic license is inevitable in storytelling. But it feels like a fitting way to honor the spirit of the man, in a way that is increasingly riveting, if also increasingly horrifying, to watch. It's impossible to know how Oscar's real-life family truly feels about the film, but for the rest of us it's rather touching.