While it’s been almost five years since the true-life events that inspired Fruitvale Station, the film has an urgency and an immediacy that make it feel as though it was ripped from today’s headlines.
The gritty drama marks a promising debut for 27-year-old filmmaker Ryan Coogler and features a stunning performance by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Oscar Grant, whose tragic death on New Year’s Day 2009 remains a source of controversy in his hometown of Oakland, Calif.
The story follows the final 24 hours in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man trying to turn his life around for the sake of his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter. Although his reputation as a hothead cost him his job and has caused friction with his single mother (Octavia Spencer).
On New Year’s Eve, Grant and his group of friends take the commuter train to San Francisco to celebrate. In the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, they return home to Oakland when a melee on the train leads to an incident of police brutality involving Grant that ends tragically.
Coogler employs a hand-held visual style that feels vivid and intimate, and he also incorporates some footage shot by actual witnesses to the incident. His evocative use of locations in the Bay Area avoids common landmarks and focuses on working-class neighborhoods, including the titular train station where Grant was killed.
His dialogue feels authentic as the script leans more on the mundane aspects of Grant’s life than on melodrama. Jordan, meanwhile, brings depth to a complex role as he effortlessly balances strength and vulnerability.
Coogler grew up in Oakland around the same time as Grant, so the subject matter is likely personal for him. The film makes its stance clear by portraying Grant as a heroic martyr almost to a fault, even though it exposes some flaws involving his quick temper and his incarceration.
Yet the one-sided approach is more audacious than problematic. Fruitvale Station is almost certain to provoke strong feelings and discussion among moviegoers as it shares Grant’s story with a wider audience during politically volatile times. Even if that’s not the case, there’s plenty of riveting drama, including a gut-wrenching climax that elicits a powerful emotional resonance.
Rated R, 84 minutes.