‘Fruitvale Station’ strikes a chord

Ryan Coogler's film offers a raw depiction of real life events

The Weinstein Company/Courtesy

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“Fruitvale Station” is particularly close to home for East Bay residents, evoking familiarity with the eponymous BART stop or the tragic incident that took place on New Year’s Day of 2009. In his first feature-length film, East Bay native Ryan Coogler presents a haunting, tense and striking dramatization of the devastating event.

On his way back from Embarcadero, 22-year-old Oscar Grant and several friends caught the attention of BART police officers after being involved in a fight on the train. When the train came to a halt at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, Grant and his friends were ordered to step out of the train. In an escalated conflict with the police, an officer suddenly shot Grant with a gun, which he allegedly mistook for a taser, killing Grant and stirring public aggression against BART police. BART riders captured video footage of the incident — at least snippets of it — on their phones.

Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” opens with what appears to be real footage of the incident, creating an ominous tone for the rest of the film, which follows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on the final day of his life. With a palpable sense of impending tragedy, the film includes several intermittent scenes of BART trains passing by — a stark foreboding of the film’s climactic moments.

It is impossible to know Grant’s whereabouts, much less his emotions, during the final 24 hours leading up to his tragic death. Coogler fills in the gaps of what is unknown in order to provide a compellingly humanizing portrait of the character. One scene stands out as a thematic thread: Grant finds a stray dog, pets it affably and witnesses its sudden death by hit-and-run. He appears to be moved by this incident momentarily before he moves on with his day.

During the final scenes of the film, which captures Grant’s eventual fatality, it is hard not to think back to the dog. Grant’s experience witnessing the senseless murder of the dog foreshadows and parallels his own fate — and with this, the film raises larger questions about the worth of an individual’s life. Coogler works sensitively and compassionately to restore its value.

He does so by spending the entirety of the film carefully texturizing Grant as a whole individual with realistic flaws, showing Grant as good-natured and family-oriented in one scene and violent, desperate and frustrated in another. As the film takes place on New Year’s Eve, Coogler inserts hopefulness in his portrait of Oscar, who appears eager to change his unemployed position and move on from the lingering memory of his stint in jail. Coogler excels in prompting the audience to develop a quick attachment to the main character, and by the end of the movie, there is little for the audience to feel other than a sense of infuriating injustice.

The undertones of racial and class tension are undeniably there. In scenes leading up to the violent moments at the station, the film shows Oscar engaging amicably with people outside of his apparent class and ethnic community, providing a somewhat simplified sense of personal progress that contrasts both the racial tension at the end of the film.

The purpose of the film is inarguably a call to action against social injustice, and it stirs interest in persisting urban racial tension. Ultimately, “Fruitvale Station” provides a gripping narrative of the real-life tragedy of Oscar Grant’s death. Coogler’s dramatization of Grant’s life is skillfully constructed and diverts attention to the humanization of individual life amid social injustice.

Contact Denise Lee at [email protected].