When Fruitvale Station played Sundance last year, it walked away with both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award – just the fourth film in the history of the festival to do so. It was a triumphant moment for a film so steeped in the tragedy of one man, Oscar Grant, who lost his life in the early hours of January 2009.
Living in Oakland, California, 22-year-old Grant was caught up in a nothing-scuffle on a train as it pulled into Fruitvale Station. Before he knew what was happening, he was face-down on the platform; within seconds, a policeman fired a bullet into him.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler pulls no punches, opening the film with actual camera-phone footage (easily available on YouTube) that was shot by onlookers that night. What follows is a reconstruction of Grant’s final 24 hours.
Played by Michael B. Jordan, in what is likely to become a career-defining role, Grant’s day begins as he loses his job at the grocery story, despite seeming like a model employee (even phoning his grandma to help a customer out).
The film has already drawn fire for certain scenes – like the above – where Coogler paints Grant to be something of a saint. Further moments – from Grant helping an injured dog in the street to ditching his dope and vowing to stop dealing – only reinforce that impression.
But to his credit, Coogler offers balance. There are flashbacks to Grant in jail, losing his rag as his mother Wanda (The Help’s Octavia Spencer) arrives to visit. And we see him placating girlfriend Sophina (Melondie Diaz) – mother to his daughter – for a recent affair.
While you can debate Coogler’s characterisation, what can’t be denied is just how powerful the final scenes are. Burning with injustice, the director shoots it unsparingly. Showing us a senseless loss of life, you’ll leave the cinema with howls of rage ringing in your ear.
It’s ragged around the edges, but this remains a stirring tribute to Grant. And coaxed by the assured Coogler, Jordan delivers a performance that will long be remembered.