The film recreates the last day of Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, taking us through his relationships with his friends, family and (most effectively) with his daughter. The film builds to the well known shooting on the Fruitvale BART station platform, New Years morning 2008, letting the viewer experience the events right along with Oscar and his friends.
This is a fair portrait of Grant as it neither paints him as some great saint or standard street thug. He falls somewhere in between and I appreciated the film’s choice to frame his portrait warts and all. Michael B. Jordan does a great job as Grant and he is easily able to capture his ability to fly off the handle as well as being a loving father. Grant is obviously cheating on his girlfriend, who is the mother of his daughter and the film doesn’t shy away from that or his history with drugs and time in prison, but Jordan is able to make him a likable character. The director, Ryan Coogler, does a fine job of balancing Grant’s character and for every possible mark against him we get a nugget of his softer side; usually surrounding his mother and daughter. All of this is a long winded way of saying that Jordan and Coogler do a fine job of humanizing Grant, but they don’t do this in a terribly interesting way.
The film drags along as we follow Grant meander through his last day alive and we see him interact with a number of strangers and familiar faces in his life. I am obviously happy they didn’t force in some false drama, but I think Coogler meandered quite a bit and could have easily tightened up almost every scene in the film. A couple of scenes seem a bit too convenient and invented as well and a few pieces of the puzzle come together way too nicely at the climax of the film. A young girl Grant meets at the store who pops up at the end is the most egregious piece of dramatic license taken by the film, but her initial scene is effective in that it contrasts Grant’s temper as he interacts with her and his former boss. The only other moment that rang a bit too false was Grant’s encounter with a rundown dog and the mirror imagery Coogler uses with Grant is just a bit too on the nose. I would have gladly traded in these moments for a couple more with Grant’s daughter though, especially since Ariana Neal is excellent in the role of Tatiana. Also, cool shots, but no more foreboding BART shots, please.
One of Coogler’s key changes to the story is the exclusion of a line the cop who pulled the trigger on Grant supposedly said before that fateful moment, “I’m going to taze him.” This was the officer’s defense when he was put on trial for murder, and witnesses supposedly heard him say it as well, but Coogler doesn’t have the line in his film. Coogler is clearly painting a fair portrait of Grant, but the exclusion of this line and the films real-life epilogue about seeking justice for Grant might easily be interpreted as the officer shot him in cold blood; and I don’t know if that is entirely fair. Grant’s death was a terrible event, but I wish Coogler would have given the same sense of fairness to the officer that he does to Grant. I almost wish the film expanded out to the lives of the cop’s day before the event so we could have had a picture of who this guy was as well instead of being a near faceless presence that seemingly guns down Grant in this film.
The film’s biggest failure is its inability to emotionally connect with the audience and part of the problem comes from the above, but also because we don’t get to see Jordan emotionally interact with anyone but his daughter. Octavia Spencer brings nothing to the table as Grant’s mother, she’s fine, but she shows no emotion most of the film. Melonie Diaz is good as Grant’s girlfriend, but again we can’t really feel emotionally attached to the two as Grant is clearly going behind her back; putting the viewer at an arms length. And like I said, Jordan and Neal are very good together, but we don’t get enough to really feel much at the end. I understand this is a real event and someone really died in this incident, which is terrible, but I don’t think the film does a very good job of connecting us to Grant and those in his life; not in the slightest.
Fruitvale Station is a fine film, but it feels like it should have had a far greater impact on the audience. Coogler shoots a fine looking film on a budget, Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal give standout performances and the Fruitvale incident is effectively recreated, but the impending build up of dread isn’t enough for us to feel for the loss these characters endure. This is a tragic tale and a fine enough made film, but sitting in the theater I never felt the impact a story like this feels like it should have.
Fruitvale Station is a C