Are the final minutes of life any more precious than all those that have gone before? Perhaps it’s because we already know what faces Oscar Grant, but it certainly feels that way in Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s stunning account of the run-up to an incident in which Oscar was fatally shot by the police on the way back from a New Year’s celebration in San Francisco.
There’s never any doubt over how it will end. The film opens with camera footage of the event captured by an onlooker. With his fate established, Coogler goes back to show how his final day unfolded. Oscar (Michael B Jordan) emerges as a very real man, guilty of poor decisions and stupid mistakes but determined to make a new life for himself and his family. As he moves about his local community, the good and bad is given fair hearing. He’s generous with strangers, happy to help out family members and apparently capable of stepping back from the mistakes that went before. Equally, he has a chequered past and an aggressive streak that occasionally roars free.
Michael B Jordan brings Oscar to life in a towering central performance. As demons fight for his soul, his facial expressions convey the internal struggle and the muddled confusion that threatens to engulf him. Jordan is particularly good at switching on aggression, his face morphing into a terrifying snarl as he confronts threats real or imagined. This is vital to avoid turning him into an unsullied martyr. He’s not the only one to shine. Melonie Diaz as Sophina and Octavia Spencer as his mother turn in strong performances.
Race is also handled with a lightness of touch impressive under the circumstances. What could have turned into a blunt polemic highlighting the brutality of the authorities and the unfairness of society is instead sidestepped to focus firmly on the victim and the immediate impact it has on those around him. Coogler carefully merges in race through incidental conversations and little steps like a birthday card with an all-white family rather than allowing it to subsume his film. He does make a few mistakes along the way exposing his relative inexperience, but these are minor in nature. There are one too many portentous conversations and slow motion shots with his daughter seem uncomfortably idealised.
These do little to distract from the astonishing accomplishment he displays as a debut writer/director, confidently laying the ground to explain how Oscar came to be in the situation that cost him his life. Better choices and the events of early New Year’s Day 2009 might never have happened. This in no way takes away from the huge injustice that occurred though. The final thirty minutes are amongst the best seen on screen in recent times as his remaining minutes tick down and all his many kindnesses fail to save him.
Coogler could have gone around in circles asking what ifs but there’s no way of knowing if Oscar would really have turned the corner, though Fruitvale Station optimistically suggests so. All that can be said for certain is that the events that happened on that platform stole away his chance to try and left a wound that will never truly heal for those that loved him.
Fruitvale Station is released on the 6th June 2014.