Beyond the basic premise, I didn’t know a lot about Fruitvale Station going in. Until the movie began, I was under the impression that it was a documentary. I’m glad it’s not. A documentary would feel too much pressure to “say” something, to reveal some larger conclusion or injustice. That the movie as it exists fails to shed much light on the problem of race in the fate of Oscar Grant, shot in the back by a police officer while already forced onto the floor during an arrest, or that it doesn’t adequately address the culpability of the officer who fired the fatal shot, or that it doesn’t really add anything to the event it replicates… I don’t see these as mistakes, but rather conscious choices.
I am reminded of my own words about Schindler’s List, which I’ll paraphrase here: just because your movie takes place during the Holocaust does not mean that it has to be about the Holocaust. Similarly, just because your movie’s main character happens to be a man who was murdered, in what some would call cold blood, by a police officer–that needn’t be what the movie as a whole be about. And so most of Fruitvale Station is instead about the last few days in the life of Oscar Grant, far more than it is about the event that ended his life. Yes, yes, it’s filtered through that event by virtue of showing the audience the actual footage at the start of the film, but my feeling is that this does the small task of adding an air of tension to the proceedings. The movie might work just as well without that initial video, but it puts in the back of the viewer’s mind an idea of what is to come. In turn, this adds a certain gravitas to Oscar’s actions that might not otherwise exist.
Before we get too far into this, let me admit up-front that there are a fair number of purely cinematic elements which tend to ring false. For example, there’s a perhaps metaphorical moment where Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) tries to soothe a dying dog after it gets hit by a truck, an all too obvious parallel to the situation he’ll soon find himself facing. Even more grating was a scene where he leaves his young daughter with a babysitter on the fateful night. His daughter pleads with him not to leave, claiming that she’s scared of what will happen and believes she hears gunshots. What, is she psychic? Alas, despite how cool such a development might have been, it’s simply a cheap tactic used by screenwriters–I believe the technical term is “foreshadowing”–to enhance the moment with a calculated, emotional tension that relies on our knowledge of what will pass and the sadness of a cute child.
But beyond this, the film is much more subdued. We see Oscar as a normal person. He has an argument with his girlfriend about the status of their relationship, drives to the grocery store to buy food for his mother’s birthday party, scans the greeting card aisle for a birthday card, gets gasoline. In other words, helives his life. I’ve seen some critics asking what the point is, other than to reveal that he was not a bad person and therefore didn’t deserve to die. “Do we really need a movie to tell us that?” this line of thinking goes. Asking this question makes the same mistake I did initially, i.e. thinking that the movie is a documentary. It is not. Of course Luke Skywalker is going to emerge victorious after facing the Empire–do we really need a movie to tell us that? Of course Sleeping Beauty will eventually be awakened by True Love’s Kiss–do we really need a movie to tell us that? If you’re so limited in your response to films that you will only be entertained by constant surprises, I’m afraid you’ll find the movie-going experience a bit of a chore.
The way that I read Fruitvale Station is that yes, Oscar Grant was killed–and we’ll show that moment, we’ll play it for the tension and seriousness that it requires–but it’s not the point of the movie. If it were, we might as well fade to credits or type-written epilogue immediately after that scene. But instead, we watch the ensuing confusion, as Oscar’s girlfriend tries to reach him and screams at police officers trying to get information from them. Instead, we see Oscar’s family and friends, held together by his mother (Octavia Spencer, in a role ten times as powerful as the one she won an Oscar for), as they wait fearfully in the ER to find out Oscar’s condition. It’s these things which make me think that though the event is indisputably a major turn in the movie’s plot, the real focus throughout is on Oscar himself, and on his family, rather than whether or not what happened to him was or was not a premeditated injustice, was or was not racially motivated, was or was not avoidable. If this movie were really about what happened to Oscar, rather than just about Oscar himself, one might reasonably expect the film to follow-up on what came of the investigation into the police officer who fired the fatal shot. Aside from a brief note in the aforementioned type-written epilogue, the movie doesn’t dedicate any time to this.
What it dedicates its time to instead are things like the party that erupts on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) as the clock ticks over to midnight on New Year’s. Strangers come together to play music and dance on the stalled train, a joyous sense of revelry and communion between them. People who have known each other only momentarily join into the dancing and singing. Yes, it’s eventually interrupted by a man with a grudge against Oscar, but for a moment it’s just a scene of people partying. Or, for another example, the movie shows Oscar’s mother’s birthday celebration. The men talk in one room watching football, the women in the other cooking dinner. Then everybody lines up, plate in hand, to partake in the meal. It’s inessential to the story of Oscar’s death, this simple scene of a family gathering. One could view it as more pandering, and I get the sense that some do: “Oh, he has a family? I feel so much worse for him now!”
Yet it still seems to me something far simpler. It’s a character study, almost. It’s just following Oscar, watching him, seeing him live his life for a little while before he’s gone. And watching Fruitvale Station as a movie that’s just hanging out with its main character, not making some big statement about what happens to him other than the obvious response that it’s sad and unfortunate, I found the film very enjoyable. I see it as being about him – not whether he was good or bad, but just about the fact that he was. That he was a person, and that alone makes his story worth following.