The release of Fruitvale Station could not have been better timed. The film explores the life of Oscar Grant, a young man shot by police after a New Year’s Eve scuffle at a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station in San Francisco. The film’s parallels to the Trayvon Martin case are undeniable. As many rush to demonize Martin or deify him, it’s the perfect time to watch a film that explores the life of someone in a similar situation. Fruitvale is a great film to add to the cultural discussion and puts a face on a figure too long anonymous. That said, the film itself struggles to build a narrative around a singular event.
The problem with any film about a real life event is you have to work the tricky balance between accuracy and drama. For Oscar, New Year’s Eve was a normal day. He was dealing with a variety of problems, but nothing particularly exceptional. The film’s drama is largely due to our awareness of what’s coming. An air of foreboding clouds happier times and events like his discovery of a dying dog on the road seem like omens of his own fate.
So, the majority of the film plays out as just an ordinary day. It’s largely due to star Michael B. Jordan’s charisma that it’s as enjoyable as it is. He was masterful on The Wire and Friday Night Lights and commands the screen here. But the film around him never quite matches his level. The climactic confrontation and inevitable conclusion are well executed and intense, but feel like a foregone conclusion.
The film itself seems torn between the depiction of saintly Oscar Grant, built up in the media and culture after his death, and the reality of who he was. Ultimately, director Ryan Coogler may have benefited from crafting a fictional story inspired by Oscar rather than trying to fit a real-life figure into a narrative, dealing with all the baggage that entails.
Ultimately, Fruitvale Station is successful and compelling throughout, but never quite ascends to greatness. Look for Jordan’s performance to get a lot of chatter come Oscar time, but the film itself is not as likely to be mentioned.