‘Fruitvale Station’ Review: Wrong Race at the Wrong Time

By July 11, 2013

Perhaps what’s most heart-wrenching about Fruitvale Station is that the events depicted in the docudrama took place just three years ago–reminding us of the deadly prejudices that still exist today.

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who began his career as a counselor for incarcerated youth, the movie is both poignant and unsettling. It’s based on the true story of Oscar Grant (a remarkable Michael B. Jordan, from “The Wire” and Chronicle), who was shot and killed by a police officer on New Years Day in 2009. The horrific incident occurred at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Transit train line in Oakland, California. The 22-year-old was unarmed.

Several bystanders captured footage of the crime on their cell phones and the film opens with actual video of Grant being shot.

The rest of the Fruitvale Station illustrates Grant’s experiences on the final day of his life. Coogler masterfully provides us with a thorough sketch of the young man and his family based on their actions within a 24 hour period. We see how much he loves his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and how close he is with his mother (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) and grandmother (Marjorie Shears). We learn that however rocky the relationship between he and his longtime girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz) is, the two care deeply for one another.

But Coogler doesn’t gloss over the darker elements of Grant’s life. Recently fired from his job at a grocery store, he is desperate to stay afloat and provide for his family. The mounting financial pressures lead him down a dark path and force him to relive a moment from his past. In a riveting flashback, his mother visits him in jail and administers some tough love. The fact that he is haunted by his incarceration factors into his final moments, when the threat of going back to prison sends him into a panic.

From there, each decision, however small, plays a part in his demise. His mother’s determination to keep him out of trouble leads her to suggest he take the train to and from a New Year’s celebration rather than drive. Eventually, Grant is in the wrong place at the wrong time–and when the police become involved, it’s clear he’s also the wrong race.

Fruitvale Station’s narrative is structured in such a way that, although you know Grant is doomed, you want desperately to believe he’s going to make it. This is perhaps the prime reason why the last fifteen minutes of the film are so horrific. The fact that Grant’s death scene was filmed on the actual train platform where he was killed adds an extra dose of eeriness.

The young man’s death was ultimately ruled an accident. Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot him, was charged with manslaughter and served just 11 months in prison. Mehserle reportedly meant to reach for his Tazer but in the heat of the moment fired his gun. The film also adopts this theory as well, showing that the actual shooting wasn’t intentional but the fact that they were singled out and beaten was.

It’s no surprise that Fruitvale Station had a successful run on the festival circuit earlier this year. The film (then titled Fruitvale) took home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance and was named Best First Film at Cannes. It isn’t just a great film, it’s also timely–given it’s release coincides with the trial of the Trayvon Martin case.

While the film ultimately exemplifies the dangers of prejudice, it’s also about the decisions we make, however small, and the way they affect the course of our lives. By exploring Grant’s humanity rather than just portray him as a faceless victim, Fruitvale Station serves as a somber reminder that there is far more to a person than what rests on the surface.

Fruitvale Station hits theaters this Friday, July 12.

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Justine Browning
Justine is a film and culture reporter whose work has appeared in USA Today, Indie Wire and The Huffington Post. She currently serves as an on-camera correspondent for MovieWeb and Cine Movie TV.