With its phone-footage intro of Bay-Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant, director Ryan Coogler announces where Fruitvale Station is going. It is far from uncommon for films to start with a scene from the end or near the end as a way of controlling expectations and preventing accusations of deus ex machina plot twists, but here it has the less-flattering effect of making everything that comes next appear to factor in to what happened. If one begins the film completely unaware of Oscar Grant’s death or what this film is about, the shooting becomes a question waiting for the answer.
As such, Coogler seems to suggest that the shooting is wrong because Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was a good-hearted, well-liked father who was rehabilitating his bad habits, and he did not deserve to be shot while lying face-down on floor. In reality, Grant, like anyone else, did not deserve to be shot while lying face-down on the floor, and that he happened to be on the right track in life does not make the crime any worse, although it does sell the story (it’s the reason Fruitvale Station exists). If Oscar Grant were a meth-dealing womanizer who was not paying alimony, Mehserle’s sentence of two-years minus double the time served and the conviction for involuntary manslaughter would still have been too short considering the crime.
But that mishap aside, Coogler does a good job with Fruitvale Station. He lets a major factor in the shooting and its aftermath—race—slide into the background without threatening to disregard it. The three mentions of black and white that I can recall regard a made-up “white boy” to whom Grant claims to have sold weed, the people on the front of a baseball card, and the coach (and his wife) of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a film about police profiling in which no characters need to say that police are profiling. That we see the white instigators of the fight get away and that we see the all-white police squad detain exclusively black males does that for us.
All this comes in what is essentially a character study—not a great one, but by no means a bad one—that has a tragic ending. Grant is far from a saint; he loses his temper easily, lies to his wife about his job (or lack thereof) and potentially about affairs, and has been to prison, presumably for drug-dealing, which he is trying to get away from. This manifests itself largely through the theme of family, which comes alive vividly throughout Fruitvale Station. Much of the film is about Grant interacting with his daughter Tatiana and his girlfriend Sophina or about preparing for a gathering at his mom’s house to celebrate her birthday. These scenes all play supremely well, with dialogue both realistic and funny while also being surprisingly heartfelt even in its simplest moments. The family talks about borrowing money and making rent, gritty details that, in addition to justifying the film’s handheld aesthetic and tendency for longer takes, make the central crime a believable end even without the “true story” backing to go with it.
Just as much credit, of course, goes to the cast, who collectively bring the film to life. The shooting and the fallout after it is the best part of the film, and the emotions would be far less palpable if the supporting characters were not given so much personality through small scenes. One could just as easily call Coogler’s depictions manipulative in the long-run, and that’s true; he is using Grant’s character and likability to inspire outrage and sadness, and he refrains from actually creating much drama along the way. The sole exception is Sophina, Grant’s wife, who is always suspicious that Grant is with another woman. But we never see Grant doing anything wrong, and that Sophina is suspicious when Grant sees a woman who he helped out at work earlier paints her as the bad guy and further exalts Grant.
That means that Fruitvale Station isn’t mishandled purely because it’s manipulative—almost all films are, and even films as overt as this one don’t always sacrifice quality in the process—but because manipulation specifically works against drama and shows that the film works not so much on the strength of its craft as the potency of its narrative. When all is said and done, anger is replaced with an unexpectedly profound bout of sadness. Instead of addressing fallout—save for the obligatory and somewhat unnecessary telling of the real-life protests—the film dips out, as if to say that the simple question that a little girl asks carries deep implications regarding race, redemption, and justice that Sophina could not explain no matter how hard she tried. There’s precedent here, as Grant mentioned earlier that Tatiana is “too smart for her own good” and “always listening,” so Coogler isn’t trying to cop out of difficult questions this time, but rather illustrate how difficult some questions can be, even for the smartest among us. That Coogler is able to instill those kinds of questions in a film that rarely makes integral details such as race explicit ultimately wins out over the mistakes he makes along the way.