This debut film by Ryan Coogler – who recently made Creed – is a dramatisation of the final hours of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle at the titular station during the early hours of January 1, 2009. The 22-year-old Grant was detained, along with a few friends, following a fight on board a train transporting revellers home from San Francisco. Grant was restrained by officers at the station and, after a heated exchange, was then shot in the back by Mehrserle as he was held against the ground; he died later that morning in hospital, leaving behind girlfriend Sophina and young daughter Tatiana. We know events happened in this way partly because of testimonies during the subsequent murder trial, but primarily because of the phone footage shot by a number of eyewitnesses, which went viral in the aftermath. Mehserle was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after claiming that he used his gun by mistake, and that he had intended to use his Taser to subdue Grant; he was sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served eleven months. The killing became a high-profile news story, as did the outcome of the trial, and both events led to a mix of peaceful and violent protests.
Coogler’s film begins with some of the actual footage of the event, before the director rewinds to the previous morning, after which we follow Grant (Michael B. Jordan, showing considerable range during the performance) through the subsequent hours until the shooting. We see his home life with Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and Tatiana (Ariana Neal), but also a suggestion of what his last day in Oakland was like as he meets friends, family and tries to get his old job in a supermarket back. Naturally even if you weren’t aware of the case beforehand, the fact that you see the shooting at the start of the movie means that it hangs over proceedings throughout; at one point Coogler goes as far as showing three unidentifiable figures standing innocently by the side of the road letting off fireworks, which obviously foreshadows the later shooting. Our awareness of the outcome means that there’s an inherent sadness to scenes in which Grant shows affection towards Sophina, or the scene in which his mother (Octavia Spencer) bids him goodbye, or the moments he spends with Tatiana during the school run, as we know in advance it’s the last time that these everyday routine incidents will occur. Obviously the material is powerful and emotive is enough without embellishment, which perhaps accounts for the fact that writer-director Coogler has endured some criticism with regard to perceived emotional manipulation. It’s difficult to ignore the feeling that Grant is being painted in an overly-positive light at times here, and question marks hang over some of the Good Samaritan-style acts featured here, though without knowing Grant or the fulll extent of his actions on the day in question it’s impossible to say for sure whether these should have been included or left out. The film does also show negative episodes: a sudden explosion of anger in a prison flashback, for example, or an unnecessary threat towards a former employer. What is certain is that Grant’s death was tragic and unnecessary, and that doesn’t change even if his character – like all of us – had flaws. If Coogler has softened the edges of Jordan’s Grant I would suggest that’s a mis-step, even bearing in mind his status as a first-time filmmaker.
Coogler restages the incident at the station so that the action closely resembles the real footage seen earlier, although for dramatic purposes he moves the camera in close (most of the people filming the incident were still on-board the train, waiting for it to leave) and cuts away to Sophina and others who have already exited the station for reaction shots. Of course it’s a very moving, sad story, made all the more affecting by further real-life footage – this time of peaceful protests featuring the real Tatiana – at the end. Grant’s case has been cited as a key catalyst in the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though that movement is not only concerned with the treatment of black youths by police officers in the US, and the problem of police brutality (often lethal) has escalated in the years since he was killed. Fruitvale Station successfully recreates the tragic death of this young man in a way that is free of sensationalism, and it raises awareness of Grant’s plight and the treatment of countless other black youths in American today. It also asks plenty of questions about the behaviour of the police officers involved – again in a measured fashion – and taken simply as a dramatic piece it’s well-acted by all involved.
Directed by: Ryan Coogler.
Written by: Ryan Coogler.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Ruiz, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand.
Cinematography: Rachel Morrison.
Editing: Claudia Castello, Michael P. Shawver.
Music: Ludwig Göransson.
Running Time: 84 minutes.