Fruitvale Station is a tearjerker with a muddled message

The tragic details of Oscar Grant’s last day alive are well documented. He was celebrating New Year’s Eve 2009 with a group of friends in San Francisco. At the end of the night he took the train back into neighbouring Oakland where he got into a minor scuffle. Police were called and he (along with a couple of friends) were hauled out of the train and made to sit against a concrete wall. The cops became aggressive while arresting Grant throwing him to the ground. One of the officers pulled his gun and shot him in the back. He died at a local hospital later that morning.

The murder sparked riots in Oakland where justice was barely handed out — the cop who shot Grant claimed he was reaching for his tazer and grabbed his gun instead; he served a scant 11 months in jail. It’s a tragic awful story of yet another young black man murdered in America. Take a cop add cultural prejudice panic and fear give him a gun and watch what happens.

Fruitvale Station details the last hours of Grant’s life. It opens with actual cellphone footage of his murder taken by passengers on the train. It’s a serious misstep that the film never recovers from — even those unfamiliar with the case see Grant’s real murder (though the camera quickly and cheaply cuts after the gunshot) and viewers are left waiting for the inevitable re-ending. (How will it measure up?)

Michael B. Jordan ( The Wire ) does an admirable job as Grant who was only 22 when he died. He’s done a stretch in jail and has been fired from his most recent job. Still he’s quit the drug game and is trying to set things right with his baby mama Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter. His last day was pretty innocuous — he picked up some groceries for his mom’s birthday dinner and met up with some friends later for the New Year’s fireworks show.

Grant emerges as a near Christ-like entity in the film spending his day helping strangers and family and even a dying dog. It’s comedic and tacky as if the bare details of his murder aren’t enough to wring anger and sympathy from the audience. Everything he says and does takes on a cosmic significance which becomes more and more tiresome as the film crawls towards the conclusion.

It’s here that director Ryan Coogler shows his chops. The sequence detailing the train station murder is nervy and tense and Coogler puts it all together with an impressive display of organized chaos. The film portrays the cops as a small gang of aggressive assholes on a power trip which is probably true. The film suggests that Grant let his anger get the better of him as well though the film leaves no doubt that his murder was anything but criminal.

After that electrifying sequence the film deflates again with the obligatory scenes of family anxiously waiting at the hospital and doctors fighting to save Grant on the operating table. It closes with actual footage of a vigil that took place outside the train station on New Year’s Day 2013. There’s a glimpse of Grant’s daughter though Sophina is curiously absent.

Fruitvale Station was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a tearjerker that hits all the marks of an “independent” favourite: naturalistic performances ambient score and a tone of sociopolitical outrage. Well sort of — the hagiographic tone is more Christian TV network “film of the week” than serious film. For a film with such a pointed agenda albeit one I think I agree with what is it trying to say? Was Grant’s death a tragic misunderstanding? Does endemic racism and a police state in America give cops the power to unfairly target young black men? Both of those things are true though oddly enough you wouldn’t really glean that from Fruitvale Station .