“A lot of filmmakers are stepping up to the plate and realizing we have a social responsibility not just to entertain, but to make people think. I hope that people who on paper would have nothing in common with Oscar can watch it and see that they do”
It’s December 31st 2008, and Oscar Grant has his New Year’s resolution set on reconstructing his life with his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter. But his resolution is abruptly cut short after an altercation outside of Fruitvale Station resulting in an unarmed Grant being shot in the back by a Bart police officer.
Profoundly upsetting, empathetic and raw, Fruitvale Station is the true story of 24 hours in the last day of Oscar Grant, an imperfect man looking for an opportunity at reinvention. As a boyfriend, father, friend and son, Fruitvale explores the point that Oscar Grant’s life mattered; this isn’t a race issue, it’s a human issue about how quickly society passes judgment, lacking empathy that every person deserves to be given. Whoever Oscar Grant was prior to his death only mattered to those closest to him, but whoever Oscar Grant is after his death should resonate with all of us.
Whatever you feel about this case, or any case comparable, what’s important to prioritize is how compelling this story is told and the dedication and effort taken to bring this on screen. This is powerful storytelling at it’s absolute best, and it’s message is screaming to be heard in the best form of media.
Fruitvale Station opens with a grainy video taken by one of the witnesses from the train while Oscar was being detained and cuffed by Bart police. The uproar from surrounding passengers arouses an uneasy, gut-wrenching sensation as Grant’s face is cemented on the pavement. The pop of the fatal gunshot turns the screen black, and the film rewinds to the morning of Grant’s last day.
Between the ages of 18 and the time of his death, Grant had been arrested five times and spent about two years total in jail. He’d dabbled in selling drugs and even gave a statement to police that he sold ecstasy to a few regular customers. Grant’s family said that he had been seriously considering rerouting his life, and even talked two days prior to his death about getting a place with his girlfriend Sophina Mesa (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana.
By no means was 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, The Wire) a saint, nor was he the monster the court tried to portray him as to the jury and media. Newcomer Bay Area writer/director Ryan Coogler challenges viewers to experience Fruitvale Station with an open mind and get to know the ups and downs of Grant in his last 24 hours.
“It hit me as soon as I knew I wanted to do the movie, following him on the day. A lot of my favorite films have that structure, Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘The 25th Hour,’ ‘Inside Man,’ and even more so, ‘La Haine’ also deals with police brutality. I thought there was a lot of inherent irony in the fact it happened on New Year’s Eve, a day when people are thinking about the future, they’re the optimistic, best version of themselves, looking forward to a clean slate. I always knew I wanted to tell it in that format, spend time, let things breathe, let the audience spend time with the character. People who watch this film would never know that person, or spend five minutes with him. Now they spend 90 minutes with him.” Ryan Coogler via IndieWire
In 2009 Coogler felt like he inherited a responsibility to tell Grant’s story after the shooting and give people an opportunity to see it as a human piece about someone who deserved a chance to live.
“I saw the riots and the frustration [following the shooting], and they didn’t have an effect. If I can get two hours of people’s time, I can affect them more than if they threw a trash can through a window.” Ryan Coogler via Film Maker Magazine
Coogler wanted to bring this story on screen with as much factual support as possible. He started by digging through public records and depositions from the court case to piece together his script. Then he spent time with Grant’s mother, grandmother, girlfriend, daughter and friends to understand who Grant was as a father, boyfriend and son. Coogler was able to outline what Grant did on his last day, from wishing his mother a happy birthday, to picking his daughter up from school, to buying groceries to make gumbo for his mother’s birthday dinner.
But not everyone buys the genuine nature of the film citing that Fruitvale Station paints a cleaner version of Grant than what his record revealed. Peter Martin from Esquire explains, “Using the subway footage as an introduction, Coogler pieced together the 24 hours before the shooting by talking to Grant’s friends and family. But the result, while moving, feels manipulative. Coogler’s portrayal is too tidy to reflect the complexity of an actual life. Instead of watching an unbiased account of a tragedy, I felt as if I were watching a skillful piece of propaganda designed to provoke the highest level of outrage. Whenever a flaw is revealed in Grant’s past, it is immediately redeemed. Everything felt too rosy.”
Coogler’s response is sharply on-point, “People will say that the film portrays Oscar superpositively, but I disagree,” he says. “It’s catching him on a day when he’s trying to be the best version of himself. It just so happened that [this day was] his mom’s birthday and New Year’s Eve, and that he’d recently been released from prison. I think it’s portraying who he was to the people he loved most and who knew him the best.”
Apart from the meticulously penned script and diligent direction from Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale’s success cannot be credited without mentioning Michael B. Jordan who’s portrayal of Grant will be his great breakthrough in cinema despite being in the biz since the age of 13. Jordan is in nearly ever scene of the film and carries all the weight of Oscar from start to finish. He even struck Grant’s real-life family as such a believable replica of Grant. The film also has a significant supporting role by Octavia Spencer (The Help) who plays Grant’s mother; Spencer seems to have the power to elicit tears from even sternest viewer. Expect nominations for both Jordan and Spencer.
The reality is that none of us know Oscar Grant personally, but Ryan Coogler gives us the opportunity to humanize Grant to the point where we all can relate to some portion of who Grant was—a 22-year-old work in progress. Coogler told Collider, “I just hope that it makes people think. You know, about how we treat each other. How we treat people that we love. How we treat people that we don’t know. That they just think about that, think about our relationships.”