This based-on-a-true-story indie film takes you through the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. The 22-year-old African American had been out celebrating New Year’s Eve with his friends when they got into an argument with other revelers on a train. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Police removed several people from the train and detained them on the platform of Fruitvale Station. Despite Oscar being unarmed, restrained and face down, and with people filming the situation on their smart phones, BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot the young man. Mehserle would later say he was going for his taser.
The film opens with the confronting scene, then shows the 24 hours leading up to the event. Throughout the course of the day, and several flashbacks, we learn that Oscar was far from perfect. He had spent time in jail, dealt drugs and wasn’t always the most reliable partner. However, we also learn that he was trying to make things right in his life. Oscar’s text messages (which I assume are based on real phone records) are displayed on screen and provide a small insight into a regular day, with Oscar even taking time to wish his mother a happy birthday.
Michael B Jordan (“The Wire”, “Friday Night Lights”) plays Oscar, and is destined for stardom if this performance is anything to go by. Melonie Diaz puts in a very honest and believable turn as Oscar’s girlfriend and mother of his daughter. Octavia Spencer, solid as always, plays Oscar’s mother. The film debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US Dramatic Film. All of this is a credit to first-time feature director Ryan Coogler.
Coogler, who also wrote the screenplay, has tried to condense one person’s life story into 24 hours; the result is that some of the day’s activities feel either forced or written for dramatic effect. In an effort to show that Oscar was not ‘all bad’, we’re supposed to believe that Oscar had decided to be good. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Also, some of the dialogue with his daughter almost strays into schmaltzy territory.
It’s a sad coincidence that the film was released in the US around the same time that the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin verdict was announced. Oscar and Trayvon are just two of many young African-American men who have been victims of police violence, but there is a bigger cultural picture to be examined. That’s where Coogler could have taken this story further. “Fruitvale Station” presented a compelling picture of what happened but leaves you, if you’re interested, to ask why.