Review first published by Film4
Synopsis: The feature debut of writer/director Ryan Coogler, this docudrama uses a real-life injustice to explore America’s abiding problems with racial division.
Review: Fruitvale Station opens with a temporal dissonance. The first thing we hear may be Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), early in the morning of New Year’s Eve 2008, discussing their resolutions for 2009, but the first thing we see is shaky mobile phone footage from 24 hours later of Oscar, handcuffed and prone on a train platform, getting shot in the back by a policeman. Many versions of this real-life incident were captured on video and replayed across America’s media, but Coogler’s time-leaping dramatisation is much more concerned with Oscar’s day-before agency than his day-after victimhood, fleshing him out before showing his promise so cruelly cut short.
In keeping with the turn-of-year setting, Oscar is presented as a man in transition, struggling, on this last day of 2008 (and of his life), to leave behind a past of drugs, prison and womanising, so that he can do right by Sophina, his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). Much of the day is filled with small acts of kindness between strangers and hopeful examples of harmony between the races, but there are also ominous foreshadowings of Oscar’s end (a dog bleeding to death after a hit-and-run accident, Oscar being held face down on the floor and tickled by Tatiana and her cousins). It is as though the future is already inscribed in the present, and the past – whether Oscar’s personal history, or America’s ugly tradition of racial injustice – proves difficult to shake.
“Thought I could start over fresh,” Oscar tells Sophina, “but shit ain’t working out.” This one long day and night will see him trying to improve himself, and so engaging in a time-honoured pursuit of the American dream, but being thwarted by that same country’s legacy of fear, hatred and violence.
In a nutshell: This chronicle of a death foretold celebrates an individual’s efforts to do better even as it laments his – and his nation’s – difficulties in moving on.