In the pre-dawn hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, a fatal drama played out at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. When it was over, young Oscar Grant lay dying on the station floor. In the aftermath, the transit police officer who shot him ended up in prison and many of the officers on the scene were fired. “Fruitvale Station” is a dramatic recreation of the events leading up to that fateful night. It is a remarkably assured piece of work by first-time director, Ryan Coogle.
Oscar Grant was an innocent victim of a racist cop who initiated a confrontation and then kept pouring fuel on the fire. (While the term “racist” is sometimes thrown around too casually, there is no other way of describing the police actions in this case.) Given the stark moral equities, it would have been easy to turn this film into a one dimensional piece of cinematic moralizing. But Coogler resists that temptation, electing instead to focus on a young man’s struggle to find himself in the world.
When we first meet Oscar he is a sad product of the streets. He can’t keep a job, has done prison time and ekes out a living dealing dope. His only apparent redeeming quality is his love for his young daughter but even that has not led him to turn his life around. And turning your life around is not easy when all your past mistakes come back to haunt you. But ever so slowly it dawns on Oscar that he is at a dead end. He knows something must change. The tragedy is that he was just on the cusp of that change when a police bullet ended his life. Oscar Grant did not die for anything he did wrong that night. He died because the police could not see past his color, his age and the way he was dressed.
“Fruitvale Station” has been impressively cast, scripted and shot. A number of scenes especially stand out. One of them takes place between Oscar and a young white woman in a market. She is there to buy fish but is not sure how to prepare it. Oscar is standing nearby and you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he decides how to put a move on her. But then something else happens and it begins to change the way you see Oscar. Then there is an almost throwaway scene on New Year’s Eve when Oscar and a young white father to-be are conversing outside a restroom. Totally absent is the racial divide that will claim Oscar’s life a few short hours later. And finally there is the deadly encounter at the Fruitvale Station as things spin out of control. Words such as “riveting” and “gripping” scarcely do justice to what is up on the screen. It is filmmaking of the highest order.
Michael Jordan has made the most of his role as Oscar Grant and the Oscar buzz (no pun intended) has already started. His perfectly calibrated performance captures the essence of an imperfect young man being pulled in different directions. Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) plays Oscar’s no-nonsense mom. She is the definition of “tough love,” nowhere more memorably then when she forces Oscar to finally make a choice between her and the life he has fallen into.
Bill Paterson is of counsel in business litigation at Ventura- based Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP