Fruitvale Station: A Profile Of Human Tragedy Jul15

Share This

Fruitvale Station: A Profile Of Human Tragedy


I tossed and turned in bed all Saturday night wrestling with Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station in my head. Perhaps I should recommend it for that alone. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

I don’t remember losing any sleep over Pain & Gain.

This is a very difficult movie to review because it’s impossible to seperate it from the real life incident it fictionalizes.

That seems to be the intention of the filmmakers as Fruitvale Station opens with actual cell phone video footage of the event and closes with Oscar Grant III’s daughter Tatiana at a rally for her father in 2013.

For those unaware, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Grant was shot in the back on a BART platform while lying face down by Oakland police officer Johannes Mehserle.

Meserhle (whose name has been changed in the film) claims Grant was resisting arrest and when he saw Grant reaching for his waistband, Meserhle mistook his pistol for his taser. Grant was unarmed.

The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years minus time served. Upon the release of the verdict, protests and small riots broke out all over the greater Oakland area.


Fruitvale Station is the dramatized account of that fateful New Year’s Eve, the last in Oscar Grant III’s life. As a keenly observed, brilliantly acted human tragedy it’s one of the best films of the year.

As the socially poignant call for justice it strives to be, it feels slightly disingenuous. Or at least unsure of its statement. Maybe it’s the details of the case, or my personal perception, but the film diverges too heavily into polemic by the end.

That’s part of the Catch 22 of embellishing or omitting key elements of a true story when creating a narrative account.

I should report that the audience I saw it with – a packed house in West Los Angeles – probably disagrees. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (including mine) when the lights came up.


What I appreciate most about Frutvale Station is the filmmakers’ decision to present Oscar Grant III warts and all. This is not an angelic martyr of social injustice but a conflicted human being sorting through the beginning of adulthood.

When we first meet Oscar and his girlfriend Sophina (played with subtle force by Melonie Diaz), they’re arguing over an affair Oscar claims to have ended. He promises to be there for her and their daughter Tatiana.

Unfortunately, he’s lost his job for being late. While picking up seafood for his mother’s birthday, he begs his ex-boss for his job back – going so far as to borderline threaten him. It doesn’t work.

His only real option to pay the rent now is to sell drugs to an old connection. Having already done a stint at San Quentin for possession, that’s not what he wants to do, but what else is there?

Much of December 31st, 2008 is concerned with Oscar’s attempt to make amends for previous transgressions – to be better to his girlfriend, daughter and mother – even though the odds are against him.


Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar with an admirable ease, fully convincing us that he’s the living, breathing contradiction most 22-year-olds are. What a revelation. Not that fans of The Wire or Friday Night Lights will be surprised.

His performance never waivers and that’s precisely why the last act of Fruitvale Station is so devastating. When that gun goes off, it hurts. Deeply hurts.

Few on-screen deaths are this affecting and that’s in spite of the fact we know it’s coming. As Oscar fights for life in the hospital and his family and friends pray for his survival, we’re emotionally right there with them – hoping in vain against the inevitable.

There are a few scenes that skew into novice territory, specifically: a) some of the obvious foreshadowing is a bit clumsy and; b) there’s a sequence where Oscar cares for a stray dog that couldn’t be more of an on-the-nose metaphor, but that aside, the skill involved is remarkable.


It’s here where I want to discuss one of the causes of my sleepless night. Fruitvale Station is so viscerally effective that it takes a little time to intellectually sort it out.

Witnesses of the event claim that the officer who shot Oscar yelled, “I’m going to tase him.” That’s consistent with the claim that he mistook his pistol for his taser. This, of course, should never happen, but the film omits this detail entirely from the platform scene.

In fact, Fruitvale Station waits to mention anything about it until the closing titles – well after the impact of Oscar’s death has crushed us. That seems a little unfair to me.

The movie goes out of its way, and rightfully so, to humanize Oscar by embellishing story points to create the necessary day-in-the-life momentum. He may very well have been going through everything described, but it’s rather unlikely the day progressed that way.

Coogler makes it a point to include positive white/black relations throughout – like a white girl Oscar befriends who inexplicably shows up later at the train to film the shooting – but when it comes to the police officer involved, he intentionally obscures an important aspect.

I understand that the real crime here isn’t a mistaken pistol, it’s the racial profiling and the flippant police brutality that makes a mistaken pistol possible.

The problem is, that’s well understood and there’s no reason to leave out that component of the story unless Coogler is intentionally trying to demonize the officer. He had no problem leaving in the racial slurs the police hurled at Oscar and his friends.

I have a similar issue with Cinderella Man‘s rewriting of Max Baer to this loud-mouth braggart who lives for the chance to kill his opponents in the ring. It makes Baer a great villain sure, but it’s just not true.

In situations like the one depicted in Fruitvale Station, the people involved always become caricatured by the media, the court system, the surrounding communities, etc.

Depending on necessity, Oscar Grant III easily becomes either a hardened derelict or a loving saint. Johannes Mehserle, a devoted police officer and family man or a racist loose cannon.

One of the triumphs of the movie is that it avoids that for Oscar, I wish it’d done the same for Johannes.

Fruitvale Station could’ve been even more powerful than it already is and avoided criticism that seeks to dismiss its point-of-view by staying fair all around.

With that objection aside, this film deserves to be seen, dissected and discussed. How often can we honestly say that?