Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s touching, uneven “Fruitvale Station,” winner of the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance film festival, opens with actual caught-on-the-sly phone footage of a police smackdown in Oakland, Calif., in which 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant ends up shot in the back after being pulled from a subway car during a New Year’s Eve fracas. He subsequently died in the hospital, triggering massive street protests. The white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who did the shooting – he claimed he thought he was using a Taser and not a gun – was charged with involuntary manslaughter and was out of prison in less than a year.
Because we know from the beginning what will happen to Oscar, the ensuing film, dramatized in a series of flashbacks going back several years to his 2007 stint in San Quentin, has a fatalistic pull. Even the most mundane situations are charged with ominousness.
As played by Michael B. Jordan (“The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights”) Oscar is a hang-loose charmer who loves his devoted 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and is trying, not altogether successfully, to stay faithful to his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the child’s mother. He pretends to her that he still has his job at a local grocery store, even though he was fired for showing up chronically late. To make ends meet, he deals dope.
Coogler, in his feature-film debut, doesn’t trust us to make up our own minds about Oscar, who apparently never pretended to be a saint. It should not have been necessary here to portray him as such (or close to it). His dope dealing is soft-pedaled, and the subway incident that led to the confrontation paints Oscar as entirely blameless. He is shown to be the most doting of sons, and grandsons. Without hitting on her, he offers helpful tips to a pretty local shopper on how best to prepare for a fish fry. (He even puts his grammy on the phone to speak with her.) His connection to his daughter is so honeyed that we are even treated to slo-mo shots of them gamboling together.
He is even kind to stray dogs, one of which, in the film’s most flagrant shout-out for sympathy, is killed in a hit-and-run, leaving Oscar wailing with the dead dog in his arms on a deserted stretch of road.
Did Coogler believe that, without these sops to the audience, Oscar’s death might seem less outrageous to us? A more complicated filmmaker could have depicted Oscar with far less sanctity and still kept us in his corner. As it is, the film, inadvertently perhaps, campaigns for justice based on Oscar’s inherent goodness. A better film would have made a case for his inherent humanity.
The only character in the film who seems to have the requisite gravity is Oscar’s mother, Wanda (the marvelous Octavia Spencer), whose scene with her son in San Quentin is as hard-bitten as the rest of the film isn’t. She puts it to her son: If you love your daughter so much, why are you in here? But even Wanda is tenderized as the movie settles into a present-day haze of wary conviviality. We want more of this woman, and Coogler gives us less.
Until the end, that is. The family’s hospital wake is excruciatingly moving, and even though we are aware that Coogler is pulling out all the stops, it’s impossible not to feel carried away by the spectacle – or by Spencer’s acting. It’s significant that sorrow, and not rage, is the presiding emotion in this scene. Although Coogler surely wants his movie to serve as a weapon against racially charged police brutality, he’s smart enough, and sensitive enough, to know that this is above all a human tragedy – and not a political rallying point. Grade: B (Rated R for some violence, language throughout, some drug use.)