Given the media storm surrounding Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which has linked the events depicted in the film to those of the recent Trayvon Martin case, you might be surprised to learn that the film doesn’t explicitly take the position that its subject, Oscar Grant, was killed because of his race. In fact, Coogler doesn’t even directly reference this point-of-view; the closest he comes is closing the film with real footage of the protests that followed Grant’s shooting, keeping the explanatory captions to a minimum as he assumes we know the reason for said protests.
But this is not to say that “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t implicitly take such a position. By merely existing, the film argues that Grant was murdered by a police officer for his blackness, because if this was not the case, then there would have been little reason for Coogler to make it. Certainly, if Grant was accidentally killed when Officer Johannes Mehserle meant to use his taser rather than his gun, as the jury acknowledged as a possibility in convicting Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder, his death would be no less tragic. But it would not, however, be a substantive springboard for a feature film — at least not the one that Coogler has made, which simplistically attempts to derive impact from a marriage of implied (but unproven) social injustice and Hallmark-level “live every day to the fullest, because it could be your last” truisms.
Coogler’s decision to focus on the final day of Grant’s life, rather than his famous death, does not provide Grant’s legacy nuance; in fact, it does the exact opposite. By refusing to engage in debate over the cause of Grant’s killing, Coogler treats the activist-alleged narrative of racial motivation as accepted fact, a pretext which he disingenuously broadens to frame Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) as the victim in nearly every facet of his life. If Grant was wronged by a racist society when he was killed, then how could he not have been wronged when he was previously imprisoned on drug charges or let go by the grocery store that employed him, even when there was cause for both? Look, I’m not doubting that there are important social issues at play here — reasons, far bigger than Oscar Grant, that young black men are disproportionately incarcerated for drugs and unemployed. But Coogler isn’t interested in exploring these reasons; he simply wants the viewer to feel outraged at the problems, exploitatively leveraging the viewer’s knowledge of Grant’s unfortunate end to get them riled up. And in constantly depicting Grant as a casualty of the system, Coogler denies the man his autonomy, his humanity.
The film is also heavy-handed as drama, reveling in painfully obvious symbolism and motifs. The most egregious example is a scene in which Grant watches a rough-looking-but-innocent dog get hit by a car, carrying the animal off the road and briefly holding it in his arms until it dies, blood running from its mouth. Even if this had really happened to Grant—it didn’t; Coogler has admitted the scene is completely fabricated—it would still have no place in the film, as the over-the-top nature of the foreshadowing (did Coogler really think we forgot what happened to Grant?) completely takes the viewer out of the movie. Another especially shameless example: in a flashback to Grant’s days in prison, Grant’s mother (Octavia Spencer) refuses to hug him when visiting, but at the end of the film, when she tearfully requests to hug his dead body, she is not allowed because it’s active crime-scene evidence.
The saving grace of the film is Michael B. Jordan’s superb lead performance, which is often able to attain the kind of depth that’s missing from Coogler’s work. Take, for instance, a scene in which Oscar visits the grocery store from which he’s been let go, to buy seafood for his mother’s birthday party. Coogler’s writing and direction merely emphasize that Oscar is a great guy unworthy of what will later happen to him: he loves his mom enough to throw her a party and, while he’s at it, he helps a confused young white woman at the counter by calling his grandmother to get the woman seafood recommendations for her fish-fry (how could the store not want an employee like that!?). Jordan’s performance, on the other hand, expertly navigates the interpersonal dynamic of the scene, how Oscar recognizes the white woman’s initial ambivalence to accept his help because he’s a young black man in baggy clothing, and how he must tailor his behavior to make her feel comfortable. This is the kind of honest, authentic examination of modern race relations that cinema needs more of; it’s a shame that Jordan wastes his efforts on a filmmaker not interested in anything of the sort.
When “Fruitvale Station” finally reaches its Main Event—yes, Coogler offensively leads up to it as such—the film does a reasonably good job of depicting the chaos and horror of the moment. But it does so not for the sake of making us better understand what happened, to provide a more comprehensive version of the real video we’ve seen on YouTube, but to further manipulate us, to make sure we feel appropriately bad enough about Grant’s fate. It’s no surprise that Coogler disregarded witness testimony stating that before shooting Grant, Mehserle announced “Get back, I’m gonna tase him.” Confronting that line would have introduced a level of complexity to the film that Coogler was unequipped to handle.