Sundance London: Fruitvale Station review

Roughly ninety seconds of Fruitvale Station are almost certainly the most powerful, emotionally charged, and upsetting thing I have seen in a film this year.

Following a very brief opening the the voices of actors Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz, the film transitions to actual footage of the tragic event that led to this film being made in the first place.

The video was shot on a phone by a passenger on a BART train at Fruitvale Station on the 1st of January 2009, and it shows young local man Oscar Grant being held down on the platform by police and then shot in the back. As the gunshot echoes, the screen cuts to black. This footage, frankly, left me in tatters.

What follows those few devastating seconds is writer-director Ryan Coogler‘s creation, a fictionalised portrait of Oscar Grant’s life that focuses mainly on the 24 hours leading up to the shooting. It seems that Coogler wants to demonstrate just why this awful tragedy and terrible crime is so awful and terrible.

But why would we need someone to explain any of this to us? A young man was held down by the police and shot. The events are horrible and deeply upsetting, absolutely irrespective of who they happened to.

Coogler seems intent on hammering home his point that Oscar was a good man. He’s shown to be the kind of guy who remembers his mum’s birthday, plays with his daughter, offers free advice to strangers and cares for stray dogs. And Oscar’s selfless acts are all presented as though Coogler believes this will all somehow convince an audience of something.

The writer-director seems to be so utterly determined to take his stance, to make his point, that he seems to miss the wood for the trees, and he ends up with a film that feels, at best, well meaning but also horribly sanctimonious, and at worst, rather pointless.

Among Cooglers mixed bag of collaborators are cinematographer Rachel Morrison, whose intriguing filmography even includes work on the TV series The Hills. She shoots the film in such a way that strongly recalls nineties cop shows. It’s certainly a look, but it’s not one that seems to benefit the film, and mostly it just looks somewhat cheap. It’s definitely unremarkable. And in a way, the camerawork might also detract from the story, which revolves far more around familial interactions and everyday banalities than it does on the tropes of those heightened cop dramas.

But everyone in the cast and crew does seem to be working towards a common goal, some of them with a great deal of skill. The unobtrusive and effective score from Ludwig Göransson is a fine addition to the film, and Michael B. Jordan is charming as Oscar, his performance working very well within the context that Coogler has created. Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz are also both superb in supporting roles as Grant’s mother and girlfriend, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray both convince in two very difficult, albeit minor roles that come late in the film.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that no matter how noble the aims of Coogler and co., perhaps they needed to think twice about their subject and look for something more to say than they’ve managed with this very simplistic, moralising character portrait.

Fruitvale Station will be released in UK cinemas on the 6th of June. It has already been available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S. for some time now.