[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It has been slightly altered to reflect the new title. Fruitvale Station opens in limited release today.]
Here’s one of the most morbid thoughts you can ever put in your head: will I die today? This thought isn’t to spur you to live each day like it’s your last. It’s a simple observation. Where has life led you to this point, where would you like your life to go, and how does one affect the other? In his debut feature Fruitvale Station, writer-director Ryan Coogler goes into the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was infamously shot by BART police officers in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler’s solemn, no-frills direction lets us walk into Oscar’s life, and become absolutely devastated as it heads to its inevitable conclusion. The film’s emotional impact is only lessened by Coogler’s bizarre decision to push a message that doesn’t coincide with his movie’s theme.
Fruitvale Station opens over a black screen with Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) talking about how Oprah says it takes 30 days to form a habit. We then cut to the real and harrowing cell phone footage of the shooting at the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station before Coogler circles back twenty-six hours to Oscar and Sophina spending time with their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). We then follow Oscar throughout the day as we see him try to be a good son to his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), while struggling to get his old job back and considering if he’ll have to start selling weed again in order to make rent. Coogler also brings us back to 2007 midway through the film to show us Oscar’s time in prison and a fateful event that would come around to New Year’s Day, 2009.
Coogler, thankfully, does not want to make Oscar into a perfect human being. He’s not a pillar of his community or someone on the verge of changing the world. He’s incredibly flawed, and his first scene with Sophina has him being accused of cheating on her. Oscar’s not a perpetual fuck-up, but he doesn’t quite have his life together. He needs a job, he needs to make sure he doesn’t go back to prison, and he wants to keep being a good boyfriend, father, and son. We identify with Oscar not because he’s an ideal, but because he wants to be better. He wants the thirty days to form a new habit, and we know he’ll never have those thirty days.
By weaving together Oscar’s time in prison, his desire to change his future, and his impending death, Coogler makes his movie far more than “A nice guy was killed.” That would still be tragic, but it would feel generic and almost insulting. In addition to Jordan’s powerful breakthrough performance, the matter-of-fact way Coogan weaves together Oscar’s story is what hooks us in and has us tearing up by the end (if not outright bawling like many audiences who saw the film at Sundance). We not only feel sympathy for Oscar, but we weep at the cruel fate that could befall anyone who hopes for a better future, especially someone with such modest dreams.
Except perhaps it’s not “fate”. Fatalism pervades Fruitvale Station, but the larger issue is whether Oscar could ever really change. The past simply can’t be dropped away just because we’re now planning to form a habit in thirty days. Changing who we are on a fundamental level is far more difficult, and that’s assuming it can even be accomplished. After watching Fruitvale Station, one could argue that the Oscar in 2008 was still the Oscar in 2007, except 2008 Oscar was trying harder to improve his future. We cry because we know that future will never come.
The tragedy in Fruitvale is one of cruel endings and lost hope, but that’s not how Coogler wants to close out his movie. Oscar’s death became a rallying point against police brutality and racial profiling. He became a symbol, and Coogler wants his film to be about the man except the film comes back around to Oscar being a rallying cry. However, Coogler never introduces police brutality or racial profiling at any point other than when we see at the BART station. Coogler joins in the movement that has drowned out the honest, complicated life of Oscar Grant. Stopping police brutality and racial profiling are important, but pushing that issue ahead of Oscar reduces him to being a face on a protest sign.
We connect with the complicated life beyond that sign. We see ourselves in Oscar. He may have become a symbol for a political and social cause, but he also represents the aspirations of our lives, and the fear that our lives will be cut short before we can make them better. But perhaps that’s not the greatest tragedy. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is what we see in the film far more than Oscar planning for his future. We see him playing with Tatiana, and we know that simple, beautiful present is gone forever.