Unhappy New Year
How often have you seen a movie that says it’s “based on a true story” that actually has the ring of truth? Fruitvale Station is one of those. The first feature from writer-director Ryan Coogler (an Oakland native and Sacramento State University almnus) is an auspicious debut.
Coogler’s subject is the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in the early hours of January 1, 2009, on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. The shooting gained national attention when cellphone videos taken by onlookers were posted on YouTube. The shooter, Officer Johannes Mehserle, was tried for murder and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, having pleaded that he mistook his pistol for his taser (a testament to either the confusion that night or the atrocious training of BART’s security force).
The shooting prompted protests both peaceful and violent. Fruitvale Station is a protest, but more in sadness than anger. Coogler opens with one of those eyewitness videos—the real thing, not staged—then backtracks 26 hours to just after midnight on December 31, 2008, as Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) lies in bed with his girlfriend, Sophina Mesa (Melonie Diaz). Coogler and Jordan portray Grant as earnest but flawed; the movie’s first lines of dialogue speak of Oscar’s cheating on Sophina with another woman.
The movie picks up later that morning at breakfast, as Sophina prepares to go to work, and Oscar readies to drive their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to preschool. Sophina thinks Oscar is on his way to work, too, at a local supermarket; he hasn’t told her that he was fired two weeks earlier for chronic lateness. She’ll find this out later in the day, and the movie shows us another flaw in Oscar’s earnestness, and the strains in their basically loving relationship.
From there, Coogler follows Oscar through this last full day, as he shops and touches base with his siblings in preparation for a birthday that evening for their mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). Through it all, we remain aware of how the day and night will end for him, a sense of foreboding that is only heightened by the straightforward, matter-of-fact way in which Coogler shows us how Oscar’s day is going. Coogler doesn’t stress a feeling of impending doom (although one scene, of Oscar’s chance encounter with a stray dog, comes perilously close to it); he simply gives us the events of the day as they occur. Jordan’s performance is low-key but strong—he’s in every scene, almost on every frame—showing Oscar’s muted struggle to get his life in order for the sake of his relationship with Sophina, and for Tatiana, to whom he is clearly devoted.
Coogler interrupts his real-time chronology only once, for a flashback to visiting day at San Quentin State Prison, where Oscar was serving a term for selling drugs (he was, in fact, on parole at the time of the shooting, having been released only three months before). As Oscar sits at a visitor’s table with his mother, tempers flare between him and another prisoner named Cale (Joey Oglesby). The scene serves a dual purpose: It underscores Oscar’s decision not to slide back into drug dealing. As the prison flashback passes, he empties into the bay a large bag of pot he was planning to sell. It also sets up the confrontation that will lead to his fatal meeting with BART police, when a chance encounter with that same prisoner results in a fight on the train bound for home. (For the record, and for what it’s worth, that real-life individual, one David Horowitch, denied being in any fight with Oscar.)
Fruitvale Station climaxes, as we know it must, in a recreation of the authentic video with which the picture opens. Coogler’s camera is steadier than that BART passenger’s cellphone, but the events are just as chaotic and confused, until that shot echoes off the station’s concrete walls. (Like Horowitch, the shooter’s name is fictionalized; he’s identified as “Officer Caruso” and played by Kevin Durand.)
The film ends the next morning, as little Tatiana looks at her mother and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” It’s a heartbreaking moment, void of melodrama, that sums up in its simplicity this utterly heartbreaking movie.