Fruitvale Station contains one of the most electrifying leading performances in film history. That’s not an exaggeration or hyperbole. The film itself is a powerful, if sometimes narratively problematic true story about the events tragic death of 22 year old Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Years Day in 2009. Director and writer Ryan Coogler definitely has the skills, but sometimes his reach overshoots his means. But that’s of very little consequence thanks to Michael B. Jordan’s commanding, gut wrenching, and star making performance. I don’t envy any actor that has to follow his work here. It’s something completely incomparable and revelatory. The kind of performance audiences wait years to see and one that ends up burned deeply into the memory of all who see it.
Coogler follows the fictionalized Oscar around on his final fateful day. He’s a young, black Bay Area father in love with his baby’s mama (Melonie Diaz) deeply, but still with a bit of a wandering eye. He’s not that far removed from a prison sentence that has made him have even more of a hair trigger, defence mechanism temper than when he was in a gang back in the day. He’s recently lost his job at a supermarket for his inability to show up on time, a fact that he refuses to tell his mother (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday because he wants to still make it look like he’s trying to be responsible. He wants out of selling weed – using this day to sever his ties to the game once and for all – and at the coaxing of his girlfriend they decide to take public transit to the fireworks in San Francisco. It’s a decision that will lead to an altercation with thugs and police and leave Grant with a bullet in his back for his troubles.
That might seem like a spoiler, but Coogler spoils the ending right off the bat by making his first scene the actual cell phone recorded footage of the incident that went down at the titular BART station. On one hand it makes perfect sense to get the obvious out of the way since the incident was so infamous it has sparked memorials every year in the Bay Area seeking justice. But if anything sours the film at all, it’s the inclusion of these first sixty seconds and another bit of archival footage at the end. It adds a layer of almost unintended manipulation to a story that’s already clearly taking great liberties to make sure the audience feels every bit of pain that bullet causes to Oscar and his loved ones. It’s excellently executed to be very sure, but it’s like having someone tell you a true story that tries to tug at your heart by embellishing every little detail to the point of making things feel quite dubiously coincidental.
Coogler throws a lot at the audience that will come back into play later in the film, but there’s no way that everything depicted in Fruitvale Station happens in a single day, and if it doesn’t (aside from some prison flashbacks) the movie is never clear about the time line. Life simply isn’t that convenient and people don’t make these kinds of life changing decisions on a whim. People have fateful days, but none as conveniently depicted to make a character look like a bit of a saint as this film does. An early run in with his boss at his old job is fine, but making a random stranger he helps find some good fish at the store become the person to come back later and film Oscar’s killing reeks of dramatic contrivance. It’s way too convenient that Oscar picked this of all days to give up selling weed, literally dumping his only source of income into the San Francisco Bay. It’s believable that it’s his mother’s birthday, but that should have added enough tragedy to the backstory. And the less said about a scene where Oscar cradles the body of a stray dog he watched get callously run over by a car, the better. It becomes a film where it’s really hard to keep believing in the details even when you know it’s going to end up in a tragic place with an event so terrible it would be awful no matter who it happened to.
The real life prologue and final coda add something disingenuous to the story. It makes Coogler’s film feel a bit too authoritative and like everything that happened between the start and finish lines happened exactly the way that he says it happened, when there’s little chance that could be the case. Had they both come at the end of the film or been cut altogether, the massage still would have been a tad on the manipulative side, but unquestionably more powerful. In that combined 90 seconds or so of screen time, Coogler makes the mistake of trying to elevate his melodrama into that of a documentary, and the effect is just as uneasy as the overarching situation is. Still, in light of the recent Travyvon Martin decision, Coogler is definitely underlining racial misunderstandings generally for the better.
Despite a somewhat dubious plot arc, Coogler still creates enough of a character to make Oscar sympathetic and sometimes frightening between the lines. It’s a very calculated film, but it’s one made with the utmost care in its calculation. While the narrative arc holds some issues, Coogler still manages to make quite an impression as a director, delivering the film something the story can’t quite manage: a sense of impending dread and suspense. Coogler shoots the material as if it were a horror film in many respects. His camera liners for long periods of time over seemingly inconsequential details like escalators, blood stained shirts, and Oscar looking over his shoulder all the time like at any single moment the hammer could come crashing down before the audience actually knows it will. That makes it a bit of a fleeting disappointment that the script and story are so amped up since it’s clearly apparent that Coogler could have made a great film on his own without the more questionable story elements.
But the film belongs to Jordan through and through. He brings an incredible amount of nuance and emotion to Oscar, and at times he seems to be conveying the very ambiguity at the heart of the man that Coogler doesn’t quite achieve. Oscar is a likeable man prone to doing sometimes unlikeable things. He’s has a good heart, but an irreparably damaged one. One moment he can be calm and nice, and the next he can snap right back to being that dealer on the corner who will threaten you with bodily harm if crossed. He admits to being a cheater from the outset, but one who wants to put that behind him for the benefit of those he cares about the most.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene and the best example of his contradictory nature, Coogler flashes back to a visitation from his mother in prison. He wants to have a simple conversation, but when another inmate calls him a snitch, he loses his shit. Despite trying to snap immediately back into civilized conversation with his mother, she has made the decision to never visit him again, leaving him as heartbroken and vulnerable as a frightened child. It’s harrowing to watch, and assuredly the one that will get the most play come Oscar season.
Jordan’s positively transformative performance carries all the way to the universally predetermined finale and misunderstood showdown with the two forceful officers (Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray, in small but potent roles) that will ultimately seal his fate. Filmed at the same location with a keen attention to detail, Coogler and Jordan’s talents combine for a truly unforgettable sequence. It’s a forceful and dynamic sequence unforgettably staged, and where Jordan’s performance ultimately gets to roar to life for the last time. His work here is positively operatic in scope and undeniably human. By the end of the film, his work is one of the few performances in film history that’s completely unimpeachable.
That’s not to say that the supporting cast doesn’t put in some excellent work. The always great Spencer and the accomplished Diaz really get chances to shine as the women in Oscar’s life. Neither character is a pale sketch of a woman caught in the middle of one man’s identity crisis. They are strong pillars that remain around for Oscar when he needs it and are capable of delivering tough love whenever he falls. Writing strong, leading female characters is hard enough, but Coogler gives these actresses plenty to work with and enough room to let them have their own personalities and even separate fears about where Oscar is heading in his life.
There’s certainly no shortage of things that can be said about Fruitvale Station. It’s created to spark such dialogue and thought, but while it’s exceedingly well done overall there are some thorns it occasionally snags itself on. But thanks to Jordan’s work alone, it’s one of the few must see films of the year, and rightfully so. If his work here goes overlooked entirely during awards season, it will be one of the most unjust snubs in movie history. He, and the film as a result of his work, are just that good. It’s the kind of performance that makes a decent film superlative by his very nature.