Movies that are “based on a true story” always take full advantage of the word “based” in order to excuse the changes that turn up in the film. Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed Fruitvale Station, is no exception. While this is his first feature, he’s an excellent choice in this case, since he grew up in the Bay Area. Just simple things like knowing how to present the BART system ring true to those of us in the audience who are also from the Bay Area. The film is recognizable to us, and this goes a long way towards getting us to accept the “true story” part that lies underneath the “based”.
Coogler is at his best when he relies on the true story. He gets terrific performances from his actors, and as noted, the setting is believable. The near-documentary feel is generally convincing, and Coogler’s decision to present the day Oscar Grant was murdered as if it were just another day is effective. Coogler relies on our knowledge of the story’s ending … well, he begins with real cell-phone footage to establish that ending, but then he flashes back approximately 24 hours and for most of the film gives us an often mundane view of Grant’s day. This is an interesting move … it seems to remove the film from any explicit political statement. It’s as if nothing in that day had an effect on how the day ended.
What Coogler is offering is a character study of Oscar Grant within a documentary-like presentation of the shooting at the station, wrapped up in an emotional appeal to the audience. When Grant is shot, it isn’t a case of white cop/black male, it’s just a chaotic situation that goes tragically wrong. Yes, the BART cops in the movie are overly aggressive, and Coogler doesn’t excuse them. But the look on the faces of the cops after the shot is fired tells us that these men are instantly appalled at what they know was their own behavior.
So Coogler wants to convince us that he has created an honest portrayal of that day. Oscar Grant is not perfect … he cheats on his girlfriend, lies to people in general, is hot-headed. The cops abuse their authority, but not in a premeditated way. What happened to Grant is terrible, not because he was a saint or because the cops were evil, but because the death of a 22-year-old man in these circumstances is always terrible. Thus, the film doesn’t end with the shooting … instead, Coogler takes us to the hospital so we can see the effect on family and friends.
I just wish that Coogler had trusted his audience more. Instead, the changes he makes, the things that turns Fruitvale Station into something “based” on a true story, are insulting to the viewer, as if we didn’t understand the kind of person Oscar Grant was unless Coogler invented some supporting material. When Grant dumps a bag of weed into the bay rather than sell it, we understand that Coogler wants to ensure that we know Grant was trying to turn a corner in his life, but the truth is, our reaction is similar to that of his girlfriend, who chastises him for ditching a source of income when he doesn’t have a job. Oscar’s encounters with a white woman at a market, and a white man on the street, are among the best scenes in the film, but they are too obvious. Look, Oscar helps out the clueless white lady! Look, the white guy bonds with Oscar and offers his help! Better to just show the diversity of Oakland by having a few white people hanging out with Oscar and his crew, than to hit us over the head with an anvil.
Worst of all is when Oscar befriends a stray dog, which is immediately killed by a hit-and-run driver. It’s a rule of thumb: whenever a filmmaker brings out the dog, something obvious will follow. It destroys the realistic mood Coogler is striving for, when he drags that damned dog into the picture.
Fruitvale Station is a success, a remarkable one considering it is Coogler’s first feature. It presents a different take on an important event in recent history. It gives us a wonderful lead performance by Michael B. Jordan (it’s odd how many reviews treated this as a breakout performance … anyone who watched TV over the past decade already knew Jordan from The Wire and Friday Night Lights). It’s the kind of film that won’t be seen by enough people, so those of us who see it will want to push it onto those who haven’t, with good reasons. On those terms, I’m perhaps being a bit too picky when I complain that Fruitvale Station could have been better.