Fruitvale Station opens with grainy cell phone footage of several young black men lined up against a wall. Police officers hover over them, speaking sharply into their radios. Spectators cry out incoherently. Suddenly, one of the young men begins shouting. The officers throw him to the ground. A struggle ensues. It’s impossible to tell what exactly is happening. The unmistakable sound of a gunshot rings out, and with it, the life of a 22 year old father ends.
The movie rolls back to the previous morning and we’re left to watch the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). It’s New Year’s Eve 2008. His mother (Octavia Spencer) is celebrating her birthday that night, and everyone in the family is making preparations for the party. Introduced as a doting father to his young daughter, Oscar spends his final day attempting to turn his life around.
Upon waking up, he immediately swears to his girlfriend that he intends to stop selling marijuana. He drives his daughter to preschool. He goes to a local supermarket to touch base with his friends and to attempt to get his job back—we find out that he was fired after showing up to work late too many times. He buys a birthday card and food for his mother’s birthday party. He spends a lot of time communicating with this girlfriend and his mother. All in all, it’s a largely uneventful day rendered heart-wrenching by the knowledge that its Oscar’s last.
Michael B. Jordan gives an effortlessly charismatic and heartfelt performance as the doomed young man. He comes across as immediately likable whether he’s flirting with a young girl at the supermarket, checking in with his mother, or lavishing attention on his precocious daughter. Jordan gives off a vibe of fundamental decency even if the character he’s playing is wayward.
Even more impressive is how authentic Jordan’s performance appears. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Jordan came from the streets of Oakland. And yet he was capable of giving a convincing performance as a preppy prom-king-turned-superhero in last year’s Chronicle. I have no idea which role is closer to the actor’s actual personality, but the fact that he can convincingly play both is a testament to his talent. There isn’t a false note in his performance, and if Jordan doesn’t receive major accolades come awards season, there’s absolutely no justice in Hollywood.
Now, I have no idea whether writer/director Ryan Coogler’s portrayal of Oscar Grant is genuine or not. I don’t know if he was ever the fiercely optimistic and charismatic figure inhabited so convincingly by Jordan or if he was simply yet another callous, unrepentant street thug. I would argue that it doesn’t matter though. This may or may not be an accurate presentation of Oscar Grant, but it is a completely authentic representation of hundreds if not thousands of young black men living in the United States, and what happened to Oscar here could easily happen to any of them.
If Fruitvale Station suffers from any flaw, it’s that Coogler desperately wishes to prove to the audience that Oscar Grant was a reformed man. In one sequence containing an overbearing amount of symbolism, Grant drives to Pacific Ocean, walks out to the rocks, pulls out a bag containing several ounces of marijuana, and upends it into the water. Somehow I doubt anything of the sort ever happened. Nearly every low level pot dealer who has ever been caught red handed has vowed to never sell again; most turn right back to it when they think no one is looking.
Oscar Grant’s proposed New Year’s resolution to never again sell marijuana should probably have been treated with all the seriousness we give to any other empty New Year’s resolution. The filmmakers buy into Oscar’s claims, however, and that leaves the movie with a tinge of propaganda. Even if Oscar Grant had no intention of ceasing his drug activity, so what? That alone doesn’t make him a bad person. It doesn’t make him unlikable. It certainly doesn’t mean that he deserved to die. With an actor of Michael B. Jordan’s caliber playing the role, Oscar Grant would have been a worthwhile protagonist even if the subject was seriously flawed.
The movie hurts itself a bit by selling Oscar’s case too vigorously. And unfortunately, we’ll never know whether Grant’s intentions were true or not. Fruitvale Station captures the final hours of Grant’s life with all the grimness and inevitability of a prophecy, resulting in one of the most captivating and tragic dramas of the year.