No doubt, one or more dramatizations of the Trayvon Martin story are in the works or planning stages as we speak, given the hot-button-topic factor and the chilling reminder of the state of race relations in America. With any luck and artistic attention given, Martin’s story will be told with half the compassion, care, and subtlety of Fruitvale Station, which applies a postscript on the tragic and also racially charged killing of African-American Oscar Grant III on New Year’s Day, 2009, in an Oakland BART station, by the bullet of a trigger-fingering BART officer’s gun.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler has worked some kind of small miracle with his film, which manages to create a sizable, intimate portrait of the man we mostly know from fleeting media accounts, and all in the compact dramatic arc of a single day leading up to the tragedy (with a few well-placed flashbacks). Of course, in this story, we know how it ends, in the fateful skirmish and frantic mishap in the early morning hours of Fruitvale Station, and we get a reminder in the opening scenes and through one of the many actual eyewitness video clips of the nervous showdown.
Zooming outward and inward from the public and courtroom-unveiled aspects of the story, Fruitvale Station pulls us deep into it and without shock tactics or overstatement (the overall strength of the acting talent, especially Michael B. Jordan as Oscar, helps greatly). Much of the film is laid out with touches of reality time, documentary-like rawness, with handheld camera and seemingly naturalistic scenes. But it is also a carefully plotted exploration of the life of our protagonist as he goes through a day, from bonding and playing with his beloved daughter and wife, planning a birthday dinner for his mother, and trying to get his grocery store job back, to stave off the necessity of going back into the business of “selling trees.” Oscar is not an angel and has a pride and will to defend himself, but we sense his familial devotion and humanity through small encounters.
Hints of the dark fate to come filter through the film/day, from the sad fate of a stray, sweet dog randomly affected by circumstances beyond its control to recurring, ominous shots of the otherwise innocent BART train. Oscar’s cell-phone texts and autodialing appear on-screen, leading up to the citizen’s parade of cell-phone scrutiny over police aggression in the deadly hour.
Fruitvale Station tells a poignant and emotional story of one young man making his way through and into his life, but caught in a violent moment connected to a much broader, harsher, and continuing saga of race in America.