It is almost impossible to discuss the racial problems that define this country without some kind of tragedy that can justify the discussion. The killing of a (frequently young) black American will warrant a scant few weeks of stilted conversation, maybe, and then the mainstream news and political cycles will return to ignoring the issues as best as possible. Worse, the discussions often frame this kind of violence as unusual or exceptional, disregarding the fact that these circumstances reflect a common, lived reality for so many. In the case of “Fruitvale Station,” the tragedy referenced occurred on January 1, 2009, when a white Bay Area Rapid Transit Police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was unarmed and lying, face down, on the ground.
“Fruitvale” responds to this kind of reluctant national conversation by focusing on the human being at the center of the violence, filling in the details of Grant’s life before his death. There is an inevitability to this, of course. The film opens with actual footage of the moments just before the BART officer shot Grant, so even an audience unfamiliar with this story will be aware of its outcome once the film begins. But by shifting the focus to the day before the shooting, the film works to reclaim the narrative. Grant becomes a dimensioned, complicated, conflicted character – or, in other words, a real person. He is no longer just a victim of heinous, preventable violence, but a person who lived, and had much more to live.
The film refuses an easy categorization of Grant. His story involves more than one prison sentence and spoiling his young daughter with extra snacks for her lunch bag. His last day sees him working to leave behind his history as a drug dealer as well as shopping for his mother’s birthday. He has a sincere desire to be more honest and patient with others but, like most people, he wavers at times. The idea that someone who has been in prison or sells drugs also has intrinsic value as a human life should not be an extraordinary one, but American cultural discourse is unjust and sensationalist. “Fruitvale” strives for something more honest. This is a difficult task for any 90-minute film, and the fact that it’s possible is thanks, in huge part, to Michael B. Jordan, who gives a really remarkable performance as Grant.
His performance, and the film as a whole, demands that the audience challenges the stereotypes that have taken hold in American cultural consciousness. Through the conceit of spending one day in Grant’s life, “Fruitvale” is able to include some of the countless ways race and class affect American life in routine, overlooked fashion. It’s mostly filmed in a style that echoes modern documentary footage, establishing a sense of place by following characters through a scene rather than cutting for compression. Much of the film works toward developing characters and their relationships rather than building plot, which goes well with its intimate camera work. Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz provide great performances as Grant’s mother and girlfriend, who expect Grant to live up to the standards he sets for himself.
A few scenes aim squarely at foreshadowing or try to signal metaphors. Because so much of the film feels candid and undiluted, these moments with more straightforward cinematic intentions feel distracting and overwrought. They’re unneeded; the film communicates clearly without them, and their inclusion interrupts the otherwise natural pacing.
These occasional missteps do not diminish the importance of what the film has to say. “Fruitvale Station” is not a perfect film, but it is a passionate one. It hopes to bring some measure of change to the skewed conversations about race in this country by reminding viewers of the humanity at stake on our past and current path.