First-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s Sundance phenomenon Fruitvale Station (2013) opens with mobile phone footage of Oscar Grant’s shooting by Bay Area police. During this footage, three simple yet incredibly powerful words can be overheard in the background: “Protect and serve!”. A lot has been written about the film’s representation of Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), yet it’s Coogler’s confrontational depiction of police brutality and his attempts to represent the society he aims to inspire and inform that makes Fruitvale Station such essential viewing. We enter Oscar’s world on New Year’s Eve 2009, fresh in the knowledge that this will be his final day – a bold and undeniably confident tactic.
We observe as this reformed ex-convict attempts to win back the job he’s lost and try to be a better boyfriend to the mother of his daughter, all the time that knowing that these acts of kindness are in vain. We follow Oscar as he runs errands, meets up with friends and attends his mother’s birthday party, before heading off to celebrate the dawn of a new year. He takes the BART train instead of driving; a decision taken on the behest of his mother, a suggestion she’ll later regret as she sits patiently in A&E awaiting the news that her son has been unlawfully shot by police. Endeavouring to flesh out the hitherto reductive image of Grant as just another statistic, Coogler attempts to create empathy for his real-life protagonist by distilling all his positive attributes into an abridged day in the life exposition.
Shot in warm, comfortingly televisual hues, this embellished illustration of Oscar is irrefutably manipulative, consequently making it hard to imagine Jordan’s depiction of Grant as anything other than a fictitious reimagining mechanically contorted to amplify the audience’s eventual response to his death. From an injured dog he tries to save to the conversation with his daughter who’s scared because the fireworks outside sound like guns, Coogler paints an all too implausible portrait of his hero. However, once we board the fateful BART train, his directorial immaturity is supplanted by a remarkably assured approach, wrenching up the tension and instilling a genuine sense of shock and anger within the viewer. A classic case of form versus reach, Coogler may be guilty of sacrificing cinematic integrity to appeal to a wider audience, but you’re never left to feel like Oscar’s life is being exploited for cynical entertainment purposes.
Whilst a reliance on narrative ciphers and clichéd character development dilutes the injustice at the core of the story, it could be argued that any drama which touches on such pertinent issues is justified in its appropriation of such techniques if it’s to successfully articulate a story usually communicated through the perspective of the establishment rather than the victim. In a world where targets of police brutality are seen as little more than black ink on newspaper pages, it’s refreshing to see flesh and bones wrapped around such sensationalism. Touching on those same raw nerves, whilst also raising questions about both race and law and order, Fruitvale Station’s flaws are excusable when you consider the cloud of anger and frustration which surround them. Transferring the moral outrage of tabloid headlines into an emotionally engaging narrative, Coogler’s line of attack looks set to continue polarising opinion.