Wanda: We’ve got to lift Oscar up now. We’ve got to lift him up.
FRUITVALE STATION, the first feature from Ryan Coogler, opens with actual cell phone footage of Oscar Grant III, being shot in the back by police officers trying to detain him at the Fruitvale subway station in Oakland, California, on January 1, 2009. Grant, a 22-year-old father and former drug dealer, was shot just a little after two hours into the new year and died in the hospital about seven hours later. As disturbing as it is to watch happen live, it is nowhere near as emotionally affecting as what the dramatization that come later does to you after you’ve spent some time getting to know the man. Coogler’s debut is more than just homage; it is exemplary filmmaking that highlights his ability to tell one singular story without forsaking the grander purpose, ensuring Grant’s death will never be in vain.
Structurally, Coogler shows us what really happened to Grant first and then takes us back a day to show us what he thinks might have happened leading up to it, in a commendable effort to put a face on the man and to the crime. If you watch FRUITVALE STATION as a strict account of what the hours leading up to Grant’s death were like for him, then it might play out as somewhat manipulative at times. Coogler paints Grant as struggling, as trying to be better, as trying to leave his criminal past behind him and be the man his girlfriend, Sophina, and daughter, Tatiana, need him to be. In other words, what a waste of a life this tragedy was. This is Coogler’s Grant but it isn’t actually Grant; it’s a version of a man who became a symbol for the prevalence of a deep racial unrest, barely bubbling under the surface of America’s streets. As much as it is creation though, it is also a composite of many a man living on those streets right now.
The facts remain the same. Grant was a father, did serve time, and by all accounts from those who knew him, was not only trying to be better but was actually getting better. What actually happened in the quiet moments Grant had with his family and friends, celebrating the new year and his mother’s birthday on his final day, can only really be imagined though. They are invented and then given life by an incredible cast, led by Michael B. Jordan as Grant. Through an unnervingly honest performance, Jordan makes Grant’s life struggles very real and very relatable. Getting to know Grant, seeing how torn he is, how lost he feels and how genuine his intentions are, connects the character directly to the audience and shows us that Grant’s story, a story that sadly is not Grant’s story alone, involves us as well. It isn’t accusatory though; it is more of a request to stop avoiding the issue.
FRUITVALE STATION is a call for peace, a plea to the people to stop and think about what all this senseless aggression is doing to America’s families. The film’s sadness does not only stem from the story that is so simply yet so intricately unfolding before us, but also in its very nature as a reminder that we shouldn’t need. Every time we witness an atrocity like this, we are somehow still somewhat shocked that this is still happening? And then we move on and pretend like everything is fine until it happens again, likely worse than the time before. Coogler doesn’t pretend to have the answers; he is clearly aware of the complexities involved. He just wants us to face the problem and watching FRUITVALE STATION is great place to start doing just that.