The narrative deals with the life of 22 year-old San Francisco resident Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) focussing in on New Years eve 2008. We meet his friends and family as they prepare to celebrate but fate has other plans.
Fruitvale Station is based on real events that seem perhaps more prevalent now than ever before. On January 1st 2009 Oscar Grant boarded a late night train home after being out with friends. A chance encounter with an old prison acquaintance led to a confrontation that summoned the police. When the train pulled into Fruitvale Station the police detained Oscar. Whilst under arrest and handcuffed a police officer shot Oscar Grant. The shot proved fatal.
These are the events that the film is based on and after a number of similar incidents occured recently it seems that Fruitvale Station has an important message to convey. Oscar Grant was a young black man shot to death by the police. Unfortunately this isn’t that unusual a story.
However knowing that Oscar will be shot at the end of the film isn’t quite the spoiler it may seem. Instead writer-director Ryan Coogler chooses to open his debut movie with the scene. This provides the film with a heavy sense of foreboding. It also serves to show just how unfair Oscar’s death was.
Oscar Grant wanted to be a better person
His day is filled with people and his focus is on bettering himself. Grant had been in prison and so on New Year’s Eve he had determined to change his life, look after his girlfriend, and raise his four year-old daughter into more positive circumstances than his own.
Grant wants to be a better person but we know the end to his story isn’t the one that he is planning. This could be seen as a deliberate attempt to create narrative conflict or even just lazy writing but Michael B Jordan really manages to find humanity in Oscar’s striving. Oscar’s day exists in the tension between the threat of the future and the difficulties of the present.
The point of the film really is the fact that Oscar is a man who has made some bad decisions. His killing opens and shuts the film and the manner that it occurs ensures that there is very little comment on the act itself. Instead we follow Grant through his day and we find out that on the last day he was alive he was doing everything he could to be a decent man.
This means that Fruitvale Station doesn’t deal with the controversy overtly that surrounds his death and instead it stands as a considered obituary. But the real trick is the fact that the film sticks with you, the injustice of Oscar’s death, and the sheer unfairness of it all.
Oscar Grant was a young black man in a society that seems to judge based on pigmentation. Again though the skill in Fruitvale Station as a narrative film is the fact that the context never takes precedent. We simply get to know Oscar Grant and find that he is a kind person, he is trying his best, and he doesn’t deserve the ending we all know is coming. Oscar Grant didn’t deserve to die but not because of his skin colour, or his actions, but simply because he was a person.
However that’s not the way that everyone sees the world. Some people can’t escape their unconscious (or conscious) biases and this can lead to some horrific consequences. And no one is innately good or bad we are born simply capable of both. Oscar Grant was no exception.
Oscar Grant was flawed
He had violence in his past and he was just as flawed as anyone else. Oscar was an ex-convict, he dealt drugs, and he cheated on his family. But like we mentioned above he was also a man striving for redemption. Of course Fruitvale Station isn’t 100% true and there are completely fictionalised additions to the story that could be seen as cynical attempts to romanticise Grant’s life.
However any romantic inclination in the writing or development of this story has little bearing on the fact that Oscar Grant was shot in cold blood, whilst handcuffed, and left on the floor to bleed out. He was a victim of police brutality and nothing he’d done made him deserve his end.
Perhaps then Oscar Grant really did intend to change his life. He was only 22 years old and he had very little experiences to learn from. The point is though we’ll never know because he was murdered. His potential, his life and its possibilities were negated by a police officer on a day of new starts.
Fruitvale Station is a gripping film book-ended by a singular violent act. It shows a flawed young man who has made some mistakes but it also shows a person trying to better himself. This is a film about people and it shows that none of us can be defined by one moment in time.