Tragedies happen every day throughout the world, but very few of them ever reach the public eye. The overwhelming majority remain private pains in the lives of the families and friends directly involved. One incident that didn’t stay private was the New Year’s Day shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland, CA, in 2009. Various cell phones caught the shooting on video, and an already racially charged city exploded at the sight of a white officer firing on an unarmed black man.
But as is often the case there’s far more to the story than those several harrowing minutes of grainy video footage reveal.
For better and worse writer/director Ryan Coogler is interested in more than just that incident. Fruitvale focuses on the last, hopeful day in Oscar’s life, but our knowledge of what’s coming hangs heavy over these 24 hours as we know what he can’t. His interactions with family and friends paint a heartbreaking picture of a man trying to atone for past bad behaviors and plan for the future. That should have been more than enough, but like too many people Coogler can’t help but try to turn the man and his story into a symbol and a rallying cry.
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) spends his final hours planning his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday party, making amends with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and preparing for a night of New Year’s fun in San Francisco with friends. As he goes about his day we get glimpses into his less than stellar past including a stint in jail, a fight with his mom and some disrespectful actions towards Sophina, but the Oscar of today is trying to clean up his act. It’s not easy though, and after losing his job a couple weeks back he’s tempted to re-enter the drug dealing game for quick cash.
As the day winds down we follow him to the BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the Fruitvale station stop, and the inevitable comes to pass. A change in any one of a thousand small decisions made by Oscar and others would have most likely seen a different outcome, but it just wasn’t to be.
As a drama and character piece, Fruitvale is a powerful success. Oscar is no saint, and the film does a fine job of showing his past (and possibly present) troubles to the point where it’s anyone’s guess if he would have eventually become a far better man. Jordan does an incredibly affecting job with the character, warts and all, and makes him a real and tangible soul. That honesty doesn’t stop the film from packing a whole lot of unverifiable acts of conscience and kindness into Oscar’s day, but that’s an option in narrative films simply based on real events.
But this isn’t simply a movie “based on a true story” where important facts can be massaged in the name of creative license. Films like Argo and The Impossible took heat for factual alterations, but they were done in service of story or convenience where the ultimate goal was solely entertainment. This, however, is a film that wants to engender anger at a racial injustice, perceived or real, but apparently lacking faith in the simple facts of the story and the tragedy at the heart of it the filmmakers have chosen to make slight adjustments.
The most obvious and egregious is in the selective use of actual cell phone footage book-ending the film. It opens with a tense and chaotic clip from the night of the incident and closes with a look at a gathering from earlier this month celebrating Oscar and protesting his death as an act of police brutality. Neither the opening footage nor the re-enactment show specific actions by the offending officer that at the very least raise reasonable doubt as to his culpability. The jury in the case saw it, but viewers don’t, so when the film’s concluding text appears onscreen audience groans at the injustice of it all are inevitable.
Another involves what is most likely a poor editing choice and not an intentional effort to deceive, but the subconscious affect is the same. We see and hear a single gunshot up on the platform, but the film then cuts to Sophina on the street below where she hears what to our ears is a second shot. Only one was fired in the real incident, but the (most likely accidental) implication here is that there were two.
It’s clear that the filmmaker and his characters believe police brutality and racism on behalf of the boys in blue led to tragedy, and the film’s third act (along with the video coda and onscreen text) drives the point home. Strangely though the film offers no hint of the big, bad Oakland PD or BART police abuses until the final confrontation. This is Oscar’s story, understandably, so there’s a lot we don’t see outside of his actions, but to show him as a man prone to poor (and potentially criminal) decisions only to lay the blame squarely at the officer’s feet feels disjointed and disingenuous.
Sketchy politics aside, Fruitvale remains a poignantly tragic look at one man’s unnecessary death. None of us know if Oscar would have become the better man he so desperately wanted to be, but that lost potential is just one more part of the tragedy. The film is at its best when it focuses on his life with friends and family and his drive for a life that he could be proud of, and the inevitability of it all is a powerfully emotional reminder to do our best each day instead of planning for a future that may never come.
The Upside: Jordan gives a spectacularly strong performance; well-acted throughout; third act drama is intense and compelling
The Downside: Manipulative and deceptive in the service of an agenda; some structural issues
On the Side: I lived in the Bay area until 2012, and my daily BART station was seven stops away from Fruitvale