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Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station: A hagiography shot on shaky cam

Fruitvale Station imagines the last day of Oscar Grant's life - a young black American shot dead by a police officer in 2009. The film may be rooted in truth, but it's a long way from documentary.

Fruitvale Station.
Saint's day: Oscar Grant (Michael B Jordan), with his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Fruitvale Station (15)
dir: Ryan Coogler

Few news reports of a murder or manslaughter include testimony proclaiming the victim to have been of poor character or limited prospects, or to have harboured so much as an overdue library book. This might simply be the result of a wish not to add the insult of character assassination to injury, but death usually confers potential that life may not have had.

There is no way of knowing what the young African-American man Oscar Grant would have gone on to do had he not been shot dead by a transit police officer during a routine arrest in California in the early hours of 1 January 2009. (The officer, who claimed to have been reaching for his Taser, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.) Fruitvale Station, a fictionalised film about the final day of Oscar’s life, gives him the benefit of the doubt. The result is documentary in style but idealised in essence – a hagiography shot on shaky cam. Perhaps this reflects a culture in which the story can only be sold as that of a slain angel, rather than an ordinary man whose death was an injustice. Would his killing be any less unlawful had he not been portrayed as the type to help frail old women across busy roads?

Oscar (Michael B Jordan) is a 22-year-old ex-con hoping to get back the supermarket job that he lost through repeated tardiness, if possible before his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), finds out he was sacked. They have a four-year-old daughter and money is tight. It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s also the birthday of Oscar’s mother (Octavia Spencer), so the pressure for everything to be harmonious is especially high.

He could make a quick buck selling drugs but that might land him back in prison. All he needs to do is stay clean for 30 days and his future will be assured – that’s how long Oprah says it takes to forge a habit, he reminds Sophina. From a television set in the corner of the room, the talk-show queen and lifestyle guru stares beatifically out, the closest thing to a higher power in Oscar’s world. The film suggests that Oscar was preparing to relinquish his old drug-dealing ways. The first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler imagines for him a scene in which he is crouching by the ocean, recalling his spell in prison. It is this that prompts him to dump a stash of dope in the water. Even in the teeth of poverty, he will remain moral.

As Fruitvale Station isn’t a documentary, Coogler would have been entitled to show Oscar walking on that water if he had so desired. The film doesn’t go that far. But there is an episode in which he cradles a dying pit bull that has been the victim of a hit-and-run driver. The metaphorical thrust of the scene appears to be that the animal has been perceived as threatening or disposable, in the same way that society might view a young black male such as Oscar. It also marks him out as a caring individual in a heartless world and leaves him with a smear of blood on his white T-shirt, hinting at the violence to come. That’s a lot of symbolic weight for one fabricated incident to bear.

Coogler has made a lean, single-minded drama that picks its form and sticks to it. Only the most resistant viewer will be immune to its thriller techniques, its imposing score, its creeping escalation of danger. One striking choice was to begin with camera-phone footage taken on the night Oscar was killed, before zipping back to the start of the previous day. But the flashback is a distorting tool that should be used carefully.

Once the audience knows what is coming, everything else assumes a crushing inevitability. To pretend that the events of Oscar’s last day foreshadowed his death at every turn is no less dishonest than making a period drama in which all the characters know they’re living in the past. The problem with Fruitvale Station isn’t that it is
so dense with foreboding but that foreboding is the only register it has. You realise you’re in the land of the portentous when even the small-talk involves a minor character asking a fishmonger to show her the state of his sole.