Fruitvale Station begins and climaxes with the same scene. The opening frames of the shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old black man by a white transit police officer are from videos shot by bystanders and uploaded to YouTube after they witnessed the incident in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, on a train platform in Oakland, California. The same scene is recreated two-thirds of the way into the film in smooth, cinematic style, with close ups, camera sweeps and meaningful pauses. In between, 27-year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler recreates the last day in the life of Oscar Grant.
Through this device the viewer starts as a distant witness of a blurry, confusing incident that leaves a nameless victim dead, but then gets to know the man – who is both lovable and flawed – and finally sees the tragedy again, now aware of his personal history and invested emotionally.
Judges and audiences at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals showered the film with awards and movie-goers put down more than $53,000 per screen at box offices during a limited release last weekend, the same weekend that a jury reached a not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, a white man who claimed self-defence after shooting Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was walking home from a 7-Eleven store in Florida.
In 2009, news reports following the Grant shooting chronicled at length what happened on the platform of the Bay Area Rapid Transit station. BART police responded to reports of a fight on a train. Grant, who was returning from New Year’s Eve celebrations in San Francisco, was among those pulled on to the platform. An officer shot him in the back when he was lying face down on the ground, claiming later that he meant to reach for his Taser but pulled his gun by accident. He was charged with second-degree murder, found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and served 11 months of a two-year sentence.
Fruitvale Station explores the domestic struggles of what started out as an ordinary day for Grant. It follows him as he begs his former boss at a local grocery store to give him his job back, spends time with his four-year-old daughter and flashes back to a fight with his mother when she visited him in prison the year before.
Michael B. Jordan, 26, known to television audiences from key roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, is already attracting Oscar buzz for his nuanced portrayal of Grant. He subtly expresses the softness that underlies his tough, everything’s-fine exterior, moving swiftly between threats, jokes and thoughtful glances to reflect the contradictions in Grant’s personality. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays Grant’s protective mother, who urges him, in an understated but foreboding-filled scene, to take the train into the city instead of his car.
Coogler has said his mission from the beginning was to humanise the victim, not just of this incident, but also of many others that get lost in news reports and debates about racism and social injustice. In this he succeeds, compelling viewers to question their own assumptions about race and their numbness to crime reports by focusing on the individual. Though the film’s ending is no mystery, the personal details are what make this story so absorbing and so moving – more so precisely because his fate is already known.
Opens more widely in the US on July 26, www.fruitvalefilm.com