Review: Fruitvale Station (2014)

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Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler
Based on a true story
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray & Caroline Lesley
Runtime: 85 min // Certificate: 15

In the wake of the despicable developments in Ferguson, Missouri over the last few weeks, the cultural importance of films like Fruitvale Station cannot be understated. When the barrage of misinformation from news media of all political stripes, shapes and sizes becomes simply overwhelming, cinema’s ability to hear, acknowledge and reflect the views of the ignored is absolutely necessary, if only to offer a perspective that isn’t driven solely by profit margins and a crude political agenda.

Of course, I’m not for a moment suggesting that cinema isn’t motivated by the same basic needs as the news media – namely, political / cultural influence and money – but the effects of this, especially in independent cinema, are much less unpalatable. Furthermore, there’s a creative and artistic agenda at work that, in the hands of fearless screenwriters and directors, is far more important than whether or not a piece of work manages to “break even”. I’ve always contested that one can learn far more about Victorian Britain from the novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell than from an 800-page textbook on the era, and the same is often true of intrepid, unrestrained cinema like this. If you want the basic – and often manipulated – story, watch the news or read a textbook. If you want an authentic and unfiltered interpretation of the facts, watch a film or read an independent account.

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Now, your reaction to what Fruitvale Station depicts – and, more importantly, how it depicts it – will boil down to a number of factors over which writer-director Ryan Coogler has little control. The most crucial of these, for me, is this; do you think the fact that Coogler’s anger at the story he’s telling is all but palpable is a help or a hindrance to your ability to believe in and “enjoy” (for lack of a better word) his film? If it’s the latter, you might well believe Fruitvale Station to be trite, disingenuous and hectoring. If, however, you think Coogler’s anger is representative of the extent of his investment in the story, you might – as I do – view his film as a powerful and evocative dramatization that pulls no punches and doesn’t shy away from the cold, hard, devastating truth of the events surrounding Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of the police on New Year’s Day 2009.

Clocking in at just 85 minutes, Fruitvale Station covers the final day of Oscar Grant’s life. After an uncertain start, in which Coogler overplays Grant’s “family man” credentials – perhaps in order to appeal to a slightly less sympathetic audience – and his inherent goodness (the scene with the dog almost brings the whole thing crashing down), the film races towards one of the most devastating final acts I’ve seen all year, in which the story of a young man’s murder at the hands of the police is played with brutal fury and authenticity. The emotions in that final half-an-hour are played with such precision, and though the earlier scenes do a disservice to Oscar Grant’s relatable faults, it is tough not to be shaken by the scenes that unfold on the eponymous Fruitvale Station platform.

There is a political agenda at play here, and Coogler has no qualms about showing his hand early on, but there’s much more to Fruitvale Station than that. At its core, this is Oscar Grant’s story. It is about him, and it is dedicated to him. The politics are blunt, sure, but they’re explored through an intimate personal tragedy. Coogler makes his points, often hinting (rightly so, as recent events have shown) that Fruitvale Station wasn’t an isolated incident, but he never allows his agenda to supersede Oscar’s story. He acts as a feint through which ignored and marginalised voices can tell the stories that the news media often won’t, for fear of reprisal.

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Fruitvale Station isn’t perfect, but it is held together by two impressive elements. Firstly, Michael B. Jordan’s (Chronicle) performance as Grant is superb, and he is ably supported by Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Melonie Diaz (Assassination of a High School President), both of whom bring their A-game in the film’s final act. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a (mostly) well-written piece of cinema that pitches itself just right. I have a couple of issues with the portrayal of Grant as some sort of saint, not least because it serves to dehumanise him in the earlier parts of the film, but at the same time I respect Coogler’s decision to all but ignore Grant’s past because it has no impact whatsoever on the injustice he and his family suffered at the hands of a state-sponsored thug and, in the face of a callous media campaign against black youths who fall foul to police violence, an opposing approach is most certainly needed.

You don’t need me to tell you that what Fruitvale Station depicts is devastating. You know that for yourself. For me, Coogler plays it right and does a stellar job of telling a story that absolutely needed to be told, even if he does overegg the schmaltzy pudding now and then. I understand why some people might find his style abrasive and simplistic, and I’m not suggesting that he gets it all right but, as a first-time director tasked with telling a controversial, emotive and highly charged story, I think he does a commendable job. It’s not easy to be moderate or “neutral” in situations like this, not least because moderate neutrality is pretty much code for apologism, and I respect Coogler for taking the story on and doing it, and Oscar Grant, some much-needed justice.