This is the true story of Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008 and feels something in the air. Not sure what it is, he takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions: being a better son to his mother, being a better partner to his girlfriend, and being a better father to T, their daughter. He starts out well, but as the day goes on, he realises that change is not going to come easy. He crosses paths with friends, family, and strangers, each exchange showing us that there is much more to Oscar than meets the eye.

Chilling case of excessive force captured in close up.

(Reviewed at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival)

Fruitvale is a train stop in San Francisco that became synonymous with police brutality and racial profiling, when a deadly incident occurred there in the early hours of the new year 2009. A white transit police officer shot a handcuffed black man in the back, whilst simultaneously pinning him, face-down, to the platform. Twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant later died of his injuries and the officer received a reduced conviction, claiming he mistook his gun for his taser.

"An affectionate parable of missed opportunity"

It was 2009 so, from the moment the officer singled out Grant and his friends on the train, a number of commuters responded to the instincts inherent to all smartphone owners: they recorded what they saw. They later handed over their clips to investigators and put the material in the public domain. The YouTube footage went viral (I remember seeing it in my Facebook feed at the time) and sparked online outrage, though it effected little change from a social justice perspective. Grant died 19 days before Barack Obama's inauguration, and a full three years before Trayvon Martin went walking through a Florida gated community in a hoodie.

This preamble is intended to give context to Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature film on the subject, which itself is a kind of foreword to those events. If you’re after a burning polemic about police oppression or a miscarriage of justice, Coogler’s small film will surely disappoint. (The case and its outcome is only mentioned in postscript.) Fruitvale Station is more an affectionate parable of missed opportunity, intended to round out the picture of Oscar Grant that his status as a tragic statistic denies him.

The film opens with the footage shot by commuter Tommy Cross. The audio captures bystanders shouting at police to calm down and the vision, disorienting at first, culminates in the gunshot. The film that follows is a dramatised timeline of how Oscar came to be in harm’s way, sourced from information Coogler obtained from court testimony, known facts about Oscar’s movements, and the Grant family’s own recollections of their dead partner/father/son.

Coogler is a resident of the area where the incident occurred, and his enthusiasm for telling a story that wouldn't otherwise get told, comes across in the warmth with which he treats Oscar through dramatising the young man's final day. Fruitvale Station is his first feature.

Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, from TV’s The Wire and Friday Night Lights) wakes on December 31, 2008 with a certain determination: He’s going to right some wrongs today. A morning argument with his partner Sophina (Melanie Diaz) all but confirms that her suspicions about other women are justified. The date holds particular significance, on two fronts: it’s Oscar's mother’s birthday, and it's also his first New Year's Eve out of prison. Oscar seems especially focussed on making these new year’s resolutions stick.

He and Sophina make plans to go to the city to watch the fireworks after a celebratory dinner with his devoted, weary mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, who along with Jordan, doesn’t miss a beat in scenes of their playful/prickly banter). Oscar spends the day making arrangements for the night ahead (his texts appear on-screen), shopping for supplies, seeing his daughter, and trying to get his old job back. He flirts with a return to drug-dealing, and his short temper rears its head, but the picture that forms is unashamedly and overwhelmingly of a nice young guy who goes out of his way to help others (e.g.: a pretty lady in the supermarket, an injured dog whose own fate echoes that of Oscar).

As the inevitable train trip draws closer, the guilty irony of Oscar’s mum’s urging him to take the train because it’s "safer" makes plain what’s to come – not that you’re likely to have forgotten it. We’ve known from the outset that the ordinary interactions of this ordinary day are all leading up to one extraordinary thing. Coogler doesn’t overdo the foreboding, though, and the 'hints’ at Oscar’s fate are plainly just a mother’s normal fears when you take out the grisly 'gift’ of hindsight that has been handed to the audience.

By the time that scene is eventually recreated, the circumstances of Oscar’s death are just as inexplicable as they first appeared, only more infuriating for the randomness of the tragedy.

One person that Oscar encounters in the course of his final day comes to play a significant role. This makes its own sense as a movie's dramatic device, to underscore the potential impact of all of our random encounters (which is after all, the tragic point of this film). But here, it seems even more pointed, given it emphasises the role of those commuters transformed by tragedy into citizen journalists. Their actions – like those of George Holliday before them – make a sad truism of the adage 'pics or it didn’t happen’, when it comes to racial conflict and authority. 


Watch 'Fruitvale Station' 

8.30pm SBS VICELAND, Monday 27 August 


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1 hour 25 min
In Cinemas 07 November 2013,