Fruitvale Station tells an important story. It’s good that this story is out there. It’s good that more people now know about the true life events it depicts. It’s very good that there’s a major film written by, directed by, and starring black filmmakers. It’s impressive that it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Too bad it’s not a better movie.
It’s the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old ex-con who was tragically murdered by a BART police officer in a 2008 incident on New Year’s Eve. The movie follows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) during the last 24-hours of his life. The film goes to great lengths to establish that Grant wasn’t just an ex-con, but a father, a son, a lover, and a complicated person with everyday fears and desires.
However, the film’s failure from a narrative standpoint overshadows its attempts at outrage. Fruitvale’s representation of Grant’s last day is filled with lazy contrivances and sloppy symbolism. He helps a nice white girl with her shopping and she just so happens to be a witness to his murder later that day. A dog is run over and he’s the only one around to witness the unnecessary death. These moments accumulate and only become more ridiculous and cheesy as the movie progresses. Apparently a lot happened to Oscar on the very day that turned out to be his last. The hand-held camerawork that refuses to frame a decent shot annoys as much as the screenplay. It’d be worthwhile if the film actually had anything specifically to say about what happened, but the movie is either uninterested or too timid to broach the details. This is no Do The Right Thing.
Grant’s final 23-hours aren’t dramatically interesting, but his final hour is. Fruitvale eschews wading into these waters in favor of easy and unearned sympathy. Those fateful final moments deserve a deeper examination. Instead, the film is satisfied with merely recreating a tragedy and hoping the audience responds. The film wants to bask in the tears of a life taken too soon without further consideration. The post script takes one final cheap shot to remind the audience that Oscar had a daughter in case you forgot or weren’t crying yet.
The film’s only bright spots are Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer. Jordan brings quiet reserves of deep emotion to a poorly written role. He simmers with intensity and deserves more than the lackluster movie offers him. As Grant’s mother, Spencer is so talented she can convey years of anxiety and motherhood seemingly without trying. Without these standout performances the movie would be unbearable. There’s enough material here that would make for an fascinating documentary but it’s wasted on an endeavor to convince us something was sad. I agree, it’s sad. But it was sad before the movie was made. The film succeeds at being a testament, at echoing an injustice, but fails as a film with a clear point of view.