My Thoughts on Fruitvale Station

My wife and I visited the Cerrito Thursday night to catch Fruitvale Station. It was a strong, harrowing tale that I won’t likely forget soon.

You may know Alfred Hitchcock’s theory on time bombs in movies. If the audience knows that there’s a time bomb under the table, everything that anyone sitting at that table does or says becomes very, very interesting. You’ve got the audience in the palm of your hand, gasping in terror, laughing with relief, then gasping in terror again.

The experience of watching Fruitvale Station is very much like that. You know something very important, and very scary, that none of the on-screen characters know. But instead of the fun, vicarious suspense of an entertaining thriller, you experience cold, unrelenting, real-life dread. There’s a tragedy coming, and you can’t stop it because it has already happened.

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave, this is the independently-produced narrative imagefeature about Oscar Grant, the young man shot down by BART police in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. The film follows Grant on the last day of his life.

And like all narratives based on actual events, you have to accept it as fiction. From what I’ve read, it’s a reasonably accurate portrait of this Oakland native with a short temper, who at 22 had spent time in prison and had recently been fired from his job. But it compresses much and uses fictitious events to bring his character better into focus.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler doesn’t turn Grant into a saint, but makes us care for him very much. Yes, he was fired for tardiness, begs to and then threatens his former boss, and is too cowardly to tell friends and family about the firing. He sometimes reacts with his fists (but never to those close to him). He’s an ex-con–and we assume it wasn’t for civil disobedience. He has, at least once, cheated on his girlfriend. But he’s a good family man, loving and loved.

You root for him. A couple of times, you find yourself thinking that he may really be able to turn his life around. Then you remember that he doesn’t have a life ahead of him. (Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, who more than a decade ago played the child drug dealer Wallace in the first season of The Wire.)

Coolger doesn’t just make you care about Grant. You also care about the people he cares about, and who care about him. This is especially true with Octavia Spencer as his mother. Watching her concern for her son, while knowing what she doesn’t yet know, tears you out of any complacency.

Fruitvale Station doesn’t end with the shooting. Coolger takes us to Highland Hospital, where his friends and family wait through the night, hoping against hope that he’ll survive. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart.