Based upon the true life killing of Oscar Grant III on New Year’s Day 2009, Fruitvale Station is writer/director Ryan Coogler’s début feature. Its list of award wins is impressive to say the least, especially for a film revolving around such recent events. Fruitvale Station is a well constructed and acted piece that has a very human and emotional impact.
Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) has returned to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their enthusiastic young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) following another spell in prison and he is pleased to be home. New Year is approaching and, as every year, the family have all sorts of things to organise as they celebrate their mother’s birthday. Oscar lost his supermarket job and has no chance of getting it back so has considered returning to dealing sacks of marijuana but his new found morality and family life makes him reconsider. For New Year’s Eve, Oscar, Sophina and a bunch of their friends (Tatiana is with other children safely dozing the night away) decide to catch the train to enjoy their party in the city before coming home. However, an altercation in the train carriage takes a serious turn and the police’s heavy handed approach to the situation will have a tragic impact on the entire family.
Intrinsic to the portrayal of the story and the evidence that was used in the criminal case was the use of video footage captured on mobile phones from the New Year’s revellers on the train, which depicted the events as they happened and were posted online. Indeed the opening pre-title scene of grainy black and white mobile phone footage provides our link to the film’s conclusion. This is reflected not only in the specific instance that brought the case to the public’s awareness but also in the way that mobile phones play an integral part in today’s lifestyles. Ryan Coogler references these throughout the film in a way that is clever and artistic, by having texts and calls superimposed across the screen, visualising the communication medium that integrates people geographically as well as recording their presence, whether they wish to be recorded or not, and regardless of reason.
While Fruitvale Station shows its denouement from the outset, the film is much more than a simple build-up to a conclusion. Its central character has a multitude of issues to deal with following a series of spells in prison and he seeks absolution on a personal and emotional level through re-integration with not just society but, primarily, re-engaging with his girlfriend Sophina and his young daughter Tatiana. His determination to absolve himself from the criminal fraternity is perhaps best illustrated when Sophina tells him that whilst in prison Tatiana always asked why ‘daddy was always on holiday.’ Oscar’s mother’s birthday introduces the whole family and the way that everyone integrates within it, from helping with arrangements for buying her a card or purchasing the necessary crab ingredients from his brother at the fish-counter. Oscar, throughout, emerges as a compassionate individual, caring for an injured dog, helping strangers, regardless of ethnicity, and eventually discarding the drugs he was due to sell to salve his conscience. This depth of characterisation is what makes the conclusion so powerful and distressing.
A compelling story of personal redemption savagely destroyed by a horrifying situation, Fruitvale Station is an unpretentious film which is both profound and moving.