On New Year's Day 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by a transit officer at Oakland's Fruitvale train station. The officer spent less than a year in prison. The incident bears a certain resemblance to the Trayvon Martin case, which makes Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's award-winning movie about Grant, especially timely and urgent.
Opening with police aggression and closing with a commemorative vigil, Fruitvale Station makes viewers feel that what they've just seen is important. But it's possible to find it a lousy film and still be angry about the Grant and Martin incidents.
Coogler limits the film's scope -- with the exception of a single flashback -- to the 24 hours before Grant's death. After an instance of infidelity, Grant (Michael B. Jordan) tries to mend fences with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who is also the mother of his daughter. We follow him as he tries to regain the job he lost for being chronically late, and as he considers getting back into the drug trade, which has already landed him in prison once.
Coogler captures Grant's quick temper and the frustration that may have contributed to his poor choices, and Jordan is impressively natural as a decent guy who still has a bit of an edge. He's matched by Diaz and Spencer, talented actors who give their all to emotional moments. Yet those performances feel like the only genuine thing about Fruitvale Station. The script is so determined to make us identify with Grant that nothing in the movie serves any other purpose. He tries to save a dog that's been hit by a car. He races playfully with his daughter. He helps a pregnant woman find a place to use the bathroom. There's no doubt that he's a decent guy.
Then we get Bitter Ironies and Foreshadowing: The Motion Picture. The day of the shooting, Grant resolves to get his life back on track by dumping his weed into the bay. He wants to stay home that night, but Sophina pushes for fun in the city. His mother suggests taking the train. His daughter hears fireworks and exclaims, "I'm scared; I hear guns!" Even if every single thing that happens in Fruitvale Station actually happened to Grant in that 24-hour span, it's still terrible screenwriting.
The depiction of the train-station incident is appropriately tense, but Fruitvale Station is built on a false premise: that a young black man's unnecessary death is tragic only if all the stars are aligned to demonstrate his goodness. It's horrible that Grant is dead, but Coogler doesn't trust the audience to draw that conclusion on its own.