In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, an unarmed 22-year-old man named Oscar Grant — handcuffed and lying facedown — was shot and killed by an Oakland transit police officer. New Year’s Eve revelers captured the incident on their cellphones, and the viral videos quickly made it a national outrage.
One of those videos appears at the beginning of “Fruitvale Station,” setting the tone for a heartfelt but somewhat clumsy drama about the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life. Written and directed with obvious passion by Oakland native Ryan Coogler, the film benefits immeasurably from its piercing lead performances, stumbling only in its over-eagerness to make its points.
The star is Michael B. Jordan (from TV’s “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”), whose charisma and raw talent have made him the subject of many columns postulating that he is the Next Big Thing. He deserves it. He plays Oscar as a troubled young man who has made mistakes but has a good heart and wants to get back on the straight and narrow. He’s kind to his mother (Octavia Spencer) and grandmother (Marjorie Shears), he loves his Latina girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and he dotes on the little daughter (Ariana Neal) they have together. In anticipation of the New Year, Oscar says he wants to stop selling marijuana, for which he’s already served some jail time.
As we follow him over the course of this day, we get a capsulized view of his life. He can be, at various times, charming, gregarious, introspective, and menacing. While running errands and performing mundane tasks, he’s weighed down by the larger pressures that face him, and he takes a laudable major step forward in getting out of the weed distribution business. Things are looking up.
This is all tragically ironic, of course; that’s the point. Coogler can lay it on pretty thick sometimes with the symbols and foreshadowing, and the constant somber reminders that Oscar’s not long for this world grow awkward. It’s unlikely that all of these things really happened to Oscar Grant on the last day of his life, too, but that doesn’t matter when the film is emphasizing the elements of fictionalized Oscar’s story that feel universal. When it’s at its best, “Fruitvale Station” is a sad fable about wasted potential and senseless tragedy.
So here’s the problem. If this were merely a drama that was “based on a true story” but made no claims of authenticity beyond the loose association with reality that those words normally imply, it would be a much better film. The heavy-handed foreshadowing would still be a problem, but you’d be more inclined to overlook it in light of the strong performances and underlying emotions. (Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer are all unfalteringly realistic in their emotional performances.)
The trouble comes at the end, when Coogler brings it back to reality with onscreen titles telling us what became of the BART cop who shot Oscar, how the community responded to the ensuing legal drama, and the injustice of it all. There’s footage of a Jan. 1, 2013, memorial protest with Oscar’s daughter in attendance. Emphasizing the facts here invites us to treat the story we just watched as a faithful re-creation of reality — and it can’t withstand that kind of scrutiny. It’s too neatly arranged, too self-consciously literary.
It also stacks the deck by omitting certain details from the re-creation of the shooting — like the fact that witnesses said they heard the cop say “Stand back, I’m gonna taze him!” before he opened fire, supporting the officer’s claim that he drew his gun by mistake. I don’t mean to give an opinion on the case, only to say that it’s unfair to exclude details like that while claiming authenticity. Such poetic license is one thing when you’re telling an admittedly fictionalized version of a true story, but it’s quite another when you’re going for docudrama-style accuracy. Coogler tries to have it both ways when an emphasis on the situation’s universal sadness would have served him better.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.