Fruitvale has become the darling of this year’s Sundance festival, and rightly so. The drama, chronicles the real-life murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 was fatally shot in the back by an officer after being detained in the wake of an altercation that he was not involved with. The incident, captured by the camera phones of numerous onlookers at the Fruitvale BART train station in Oakland, prompted national outrage in what was not the first and would certainly not be the last senseless murder of a young black man at the hands of law enforcement.
Helmed by first-time director Ryan Coogler and produced by Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer (who makes a brief but powerful appearance in the film as Grant’s mother), the film puts as much focus on the fatal shooting as it does on what preceded it, painting a picture of Oscar as not only a symbol of police injustice, but as a son, a father to a young daughter (Ariana Neal) and a boyfriend trying to do right by his girl (the wonderful Melonie Diaz).
The cast, rounded out by Chad Michael Murray, Kevin Durand, and Ahna O’Reilly are all stellar, but it’s lead actor Michael B. Jordan who truly carries the emotional weight of the film.
Jordan has turned in what will most definitely be a career-defining performance. Best known for his work on the TV series Friday Night Lights and more recently the found footage movie Chronicle, the young actor has proven here that he is not only ready but seriously deserving of so-called A-List status. The quiet beauty of the role is that he isn’t perfect – at the top of the film Oscar has only just ended his weed-selling; a flashback later in the film reveals his mother visiting him in prison for an undivulged crime. Still, Coogler takes care to frame his screenplay, no matter Grant’s passed mistakes, as ultimately the story of an extremely decent person.
Indeed, the film casts a very sympathetic eye on Oscar, shedding a slightly more ambiguous light on the cops who detained and killed him. Detractors may say that the film wears its agenda too obviously on its sleeve, warping what might or might not be the “truth” for its own convenience. But what is perhaps most interesting about Fruitvale is that it stands at the intersection of cinema and a digital age where sites like YouTube and WorldStarHipHop have complicated the very notion of what the “truth” even is.
The hundreds of videos from that night, thirty second snippets, three-minute clips, shaky images that still so easily can be pulled up on any internet search, show us from numerous angles the “truth” of the incident. But even that truth was debated and doubted in courtrooms after Grant’s death. Even that truth could only secure a two-year manslaughter conviction for the officer who claimed he had only meant to shock Grant with a taser.
Coogler, by reframing what we saw documented plainly by the onlookers that day in cinematic form, by giving it context, has made an important statement on the power of not merely the moving image, but the power of perspective.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.