This much we know: in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, January 1, 2009, a fight broke out on an Oakland-bound Bay Area Rapid Transit train heading west out of San Francisco. The train stopped at Fruitvale Station, where it was met by BART police who pulled several men from the train and detained them on the platform. As captured by numerous cell phone and handheld cameras from the stopped train, the already tense situation escalated as the police tried to place some of the men under arrest. One officer drew his sidearm and fired it, point blank, into the back of one suspect who was already pinned face-down on the platform. That man, Oscar Grant died seven hours later.
I was not there that morning on that platform. You probably weren’t either. We will never know exactly what happened in those frantic minutes. Ryan Coogler doesn’t either, but in his feature film debut as writer and director of Fruitvale Station he doesn’t really need to. This is less a film about what happened in that moment as what had come before. It’s easy to write this incident up as “young black man dies in police custody” and let it become a statistic; it’s harder to remember that each young black man in that statistic has a story. Coogler tells the real, human story of Oscar Grant with the help of a fantastic leading performance by Michael B. Jordan.
After opening with a cell phone clip from the early morning of New Year’s Day, Coogler moves back to the morning of New Year’s Eve to watch Grant (Jordan) on the last day of his life. Despite being clearly sympathetic to Grant, the film hardly portrays him as a saint. His girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), is upset at him for cheating on her. He hasn’t even told her yet that he lost his job at a grocery store, and he’s gone back to dealing marijuana to make ends meet. He spent the previous New Year’s Eve in prison, and while he remembers that day we see how his temper breaks through.
But we also see how sweet Grant is with his four-year-old daughter, and how he spoils his mother (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday. He wants to do better than he has; he dumps his stash, and even makes a contact for a potential job in the city. As Grant and his friends head into the evening, things seem to be looking up.
And then the train home, and the fight, and the police. The lead officer (Kevin Durand) is brutal, and he exacerbates the situation at every turn, but Grant’s temper — justified or not — doesn’t exactly calm things down. And when the young officer draws his gun it’s still not certain exactly what’s happening. Coogler is clearly on Grant’s side, but he’s remarkably even-handed in how he presents the facts.
He pulls this off, in part, because the story isn’t really about this moment. Jordan’s fantastic performance brings Grant to life as a fully three-dimensional person. Whether Grant’s death was a criminal overreaction or just the tragic accident the officer claimed, we feel the loss much more to see a person laying on the platform instead of just a demographic.
Durand also deserves praise for his performance in what must have been a difficult role. His character is key to making the confrontation as harrowing to watch as it is, and as it should be. But, as hard to watch as Fruitvale Station is, it’s just as necessary. I will almost certainly never be in a situation like that, but we can all stand witness to Grant’s life, and to the lives of all the young men that wind up on the wrong end of those who appropriate the mantle of authority.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.