Ryan Coogler’s feature directing and writing debut is a fictionalized look at the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man shot to death by transit police at a train station on New Year’s Day 2009. The events were big news when they happened, another in a long line of examples of police overreach into violence at the expense of the black community. Coogler easily could have gone down this path and made Fruitvale Station into an issue film writ large, but represses this approach, opting instead for a more personal look at the man at the center of the story.
We follow Oscar through his last day, and it turns out to be one of the more eventful days of anyone’s life. Oscar, in preparing for a night out on New Year’s Eve, manages to run into every important figure in his life and history over the course of a few hours, a sort of This is Your Life in film form, as an unmistakable cloud of dread follows him from place to place, event to event. Coogler’s script is pretty difficult to swallow thanks to this approach, as it becomes clear that he is not a fan of subtlety. Everywhere Oscar goes, he is greeted by pointed foreshadowing, as his mother makes sure to tell him to take the train that night, and loved ones remark that he “be safe” and he responds by letting them know he’ll see them soon. It would only be slightly less absurd for him to walk around with a neon sign sticking out of his back declaring I’M GOING TO DIE TONIGHT. It’s pretty rough at times.
It would take someone of singular talent and charisma to make a script so full of pitfalls as Fruitvale Station work on any appreciable level. It’s good, then, that Coogler has just the person up to the task, putting all of his overly oppressive foreshadowing and symbolism on the back of Michael B. Jordan of The Wire and Friday Night Lights and Chronicle fame. Jordan is a strong enough actor to actually make aspects of this work a little bit, giving us an Oscar Grant who feels like a real person even as he moves through manufactured omen after manufactured omen. Jordan makes you believe that Oscar is a flawed man trying to make good, and makes sure that he isn’t simply a saint going through his metaphorical last rites, no matter how much Coogler wants to push him in that direction.
It’s impressive that we got something relatively decent out of this howler of a script. It’s a credit to Michael B. Jordan that this was even possible in the first place. A better script (perhaps one that doesn’t find it necessary to gimmick up by having everything happen on one day) that wouldn’t play things up in such an arch way certainly would have helped, and likely would have been more deserving of Jordan than what we actually got in Fruitvale Station. It’s worth watching, and shows promise for Coogler as a young director (and a little less as a young writer), but the recommendation comes with many caveats.