David Ehrlich of the OpKino podcast posited that the incident or story
that's told in writer-director Ryan Coogler's debut feature film would
have been better as a documentary. I would agree with Ehrlich if only as
a way of opening up and expanding the issues raised therein, issues
such as young African-American males unfairly treated in and as a result
of the criminal justice system, as well as the poor relations between
those same males and the police in general. Depiction isn't always the
same as exploration. This movie depicts a moment that raises those
issues but doesn't explore them. In terms of a narrative film or a piece
of art, without that exploration, Fruitvale Station is rather slight.
Aside from bringing up those issues of race relations and the struggle of poor blacks in the inner cities, and two really good acting moments from Octavia Spencer, there's not much to takeaway, except that what happened to Oscar Julius Grant III on January 1, 2009 was an absolute tragedy. Coogler gets us to possibly shed a tear over it, which could be cathartic in light of the recent trial over the Trayvon Martin shooting but does little else.
Michael B. Jordan (Red Tails and Chronicle) stars as Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old, real-life boy who was shot in the back by a transit cop while Oscar was on the ground with his hands behind him. Coogler depicts Grant's final 24 hours alive. Grant died on New Year's Day 2009 at the hospital a few hours after the shooting.
Oscar and Sophina, his girlfriend, along with a group of friends, all go into San Francisco by train to watch the fireworks. On the way home back to Oakland, a fight breaks out between Oscar and another passenger. The transit cops pull Oscar and his friends off. Things get needlessly intense and the transit cop shoots Oscar without real provocation.
Instead of building off this incident or analyzing it, Coogler uses the shooting as his climax, as an almost inevitability but it almost comes out of nowhere and completely contradicts expectations. I don't won't to blame the victim because Oscar did not deserve to be shot, but it's clear that Oscar antagonizes the transit cops. He mouths off when he should have just kept quiet.
It's obvious that he's upset and scared, but Oscar is proven to be smart and fully aware of his situation and the ramifications. In almost every scene prior to the shooting, Oscar proves how smart and how self-aware he is. He has an early encounter with a young, white girl that in subtle ways shows how uneasy relations between whites and blacks still can be.
There is a flashback that shows Oscar in San Quentin prison, so his reaction to cops should have been a more cautious one. Oscar throws away some drugs when he has the motive and opportunity to sell them. Why? It's because he doesn't want to jeopardize his freedom, and there are so many scenes of Oscar and his daughter that one assumes he would never do anything to threaten the promise he makes to come home to his daughter safe and sound.
There is no way to ever get into the mind of the real Oscar Grant in that moment, but, in a narrative reconstruction, Coogler would have been helped to give us some clue as to why what happened happened. Some filmmakers like Michael Haneke have taken real-life events and depicted them in detail but without psychoanalysis or in a totally objective or possibly standoffish way.
I don't get the sense that Coogler is trying to be totally objective or standoffish. This is evident in that Coogler keeps the story going even after Oscar's death and focuses on his mother Wanda, played by Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help). Coogler wants us to empathize and cry with her. The final shot on Oscar's daughter is also telling of how Coogler wants us to feel.
The cop who shoots Oscar comes out of nowhere with his actions too. Strangely, there is a bit of a misdirection. The cop who pulls Oscar off the train, who engages him, who has all the dialogue and who you think will be the shooter is not the shooter. The camera doesn't even focus on the shooter until right before the act. The incident was well-documented on people's cell phone videos, so Coogler probably felt compelled not to depict something that didn't actually happen in that moment, but, to give so little screen time and focus more on Kevin Durand who plays Officer Caruso, the antagonist cop, is unfulfilling.
Michael B. Jordan is charming. He's very handsome. He can be very fun to watch. He does have a really good scene with Melonie Diaz where he basically has to tell the truth about his job though Diaz does most of the heavy lifting. There are two scenes where Jordan has to act "tough" that didn't work for me. Oscar acts tough toward his boss at work and even toward his mom. Jordan makes this face that's supposed to be his tough face and it's almost laughable.
Octavia Spencer, however, is fantastic. She is absolutely phenomenal. In the San Quentin scene, Spencer proves how phenomenal she is. She's told something horrible and her wordless reaction is very powerful. The look in her eye says so much. In the hospital scene toward the end, she's similarly told something even more horrible and her wordless reaction there is just as if not more powerful.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.