In his debut feature, director Ryan Coogler depicts the life and the death of 22-year old Oscar Grant by Bart police officers is explored in a highly fueled and moving portrayal of one man and his last day. Michael B. Jordan plays Grant, as he goes about his life on New Year’s Day, before he is shot by police, while unarmed in 2009.
Here, audiences get an accomplished film that portrays the tragic events of one single day and the abuse of power from American law enforcement. The film stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan in a role that solidifies him as a talented leading man.
The film follows one day in the life of Oscar Grant (Jordan). We watch as Grant interacts with his girlfriend, daughter, and mother (Spencer), while also trying to straighten out mistakes in his life. Watching Grant make both good and bad decisions, while also getting an insight into his past, the film builds to the night at Fruitvale Station where tragedy strikes.
Previously Coogler had directed three well-received shorts before moving into feature length films. Coogler also penned the screenplay for the film, with the help and input of Grant’s attorney as well as Grant’s family. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker produced the film, after meeting with Coogler, who expressed an early interest to make a film about Grant’s life and death.
As a story, this works as an observational piece. The majority of the film is about getting to know its characters by watching them. This can be a risky approach, but is brilliantly accomplished here, simply because you care about the film’s characters.
The film utilises pace fantastically. Through Coogler’s simple storytelling and un-flashy script, we get an intimate insight into Grant’s world. The film builds until all hell breaks loose and chaos is felt throughout. Despite the fact that we know the outcome of the day, you yearn to know how Grant will end up on that train platform in the position he finds himself in. It is a testament to great storytelling that even though audiences know the conclusion, you are still enthralled by the film. Grant feels so realistic that audiences grow attached to the film’s lead subject. This is due in part to Coogler’s script and direction, but also Jordan’s wonderful portrayal of him.
In Michael B. Jordan, Coogler cast a charismatic and brilliant young lead. His performance is understated, yet layered in portraying Grant’s many aspects. Able to hold the audience while alone on screen, through prolonged silences, yet also interacting with the film’s strong cast. The scenes that show Grant with Oscar-winner Spencer are highlights that display his talent holding his own with such a screen presence. Also, the scenes with his onscreen daughter make the film’s approaching finale so much more felt.
The director has chosen to portray Grant in a good light. In no way a perfect viewpoint, but merely a character that loves his family. We see his love of his girlfriend and young daughter, as well as his respect for his mother and even for a hurt dog. But Coogler has also made Grant a misguided character. The film begins with him and his girlfriend discussing his betrayal of her. Flashbacks show that Grant did indeed serve time in prison and is prone to angry outbursts. Grant also used and dealt drugs, but this is merely part of the character that is displayed onscreen. Coogler has made Grant a flawed character, but a real one, which makes the events of that horrific day all the more gut-wrenching. Audiences will feel great empathy for Grant in his struggle to better himself. For those that have a one-sided opinion of the events at Fruitvale Station, this can either be seen as a criticism or a compliment. Either way the audience’s affection for Grant carries the film and delivers its final revelation with heartbreaking consequences.
The film features some of the footage that was filmed by witnesses that day in the station. Indeed, Grant’s shooting was filmed by many bystanders and subsequently watched by many Americans in its aftermath. The decision may be criticised by some, but its inclusion makes the film more realistic and more heartfelt. The footage was one of the many aspects that caused such outrage with protesters who state that police officers used excessive, even aggressive force that day.
Fruitvale Station is a well-written, superbly directed first feature for newcomer Coogler. It showcases his talents for storytelling and features an Oscar-worthy performance from Jordan. In fact, Jordan continues to feel like an actor that is destined to win an Oscar with his amazing ability and audiences can only hope that his future projects, including one with Coogler, are as magnetic as this one. A heartfelt and moving portrayal of a young life lost.
Fruitvale Station is available to watch on MUBI