Fruitvale Station tells you exactly what is going to happen in the opening minutes of the film, but that doesn’t stop it delivering one of the most heart-wrenching endings you could imagine.
This debut film by writer/director Ryan Coogler opens with actual mobile phone footage of the shooting of 22-year-old black American Oscar Grant by San Francisco’s transit police in 2009. It was an event that captured headlines across the country and resulted in numerous protests and riots. Since that time Grant’s death has become something of a rallying point for social injustice in the United States, but Coogler proceeds to rewind the story in order to present us with the last 24 hours of this man’s life.
Grant is given new life by Michael B. Jordan, a talented young actor viewers might recognize from pivotal TV shows The Wire and Friday Night Lights, as well as the 2012 movie Chronicle. But this is by far his highest watermark as an actor. Jordan draws the audience into the day before the shooting, delivering a picture of a young man who has spent years as a petty criminal, a poor employee and a dishonest boyfriend. He is ‘tired’ of not just failing to live up to his potential, but disappointing those who hope the best for him – his stalwart Christian mother Wanda, his fiery Latino girlfriend Sophina and, most of all, his pre-school daughter Tatiana. It’s New Year’s Eve and coincidentally his mother’s birthday, and Oscar will begin it by making a resolution he hopes will be the first step on a new life:
Sophina: “It only takes 30 days to break a habit and then it becomes second nature. “
Oscar: “Who says that? “
Sophina: “Oprah .”
However the hours that follow are more difficult than Oscar could have imagined. Losing his job puts pressure on him to turn back to the drug trade that has sorted problems in the past. Telling his girlfriend the truth also invites some harsh self-examination. However as the evening’s celebrations approach Oscar realizes that if he’s going to change then it can’t be in part. The question is, will the world allow him to make that transformation?
Fruitvale Station directly intersects with two major themes of the Christian faith. Oscar’s mother and Grandma Bonnie both display a determined faith in God that is expressed in daily prayer and clearly affects this young man’s outlook. In fact Wanda offers an extended prayer to ‘Our Heavenly Lord’ in a time of crisis that was so genuine it could have come from my own mum’s mouth. And her response to unanswered prayers is not the emotional tirade Hollywood so often produces but the sad peace that flows from a real relationship.
The second juncture is Fruitvale Station’s tacit recognition of how hard it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ disciples were instantly sobered by His declaration that even the well-off, socially admired members of their society would struggle to live up to God’s standards:
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
Despite Oprah’s assertions 30 days are not nearly enough to transform the human heart. And even if they were, Oscar discovers that we inhabit a world where the threads of our past sinfulness continue to entangle us even when our hearts wish to break free.
Fruitvale Station may stray into sentimentality at times as it attempts to introduce us to the Oscar behind the headlines. But it remains a powerfully moving film because it demonstrates that even our hopes of redemption are subject to the sin that strangles every good intention. Its potent tragedy could lift it as high as an Academy Award but that would only result in an increased awareness of the problems faced by young men like Oscar. If we really believe that lasting change is possible, we have to begin by applying to the God of the impossible.
Release Date: November 7