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by Eric Kohn
January 21, 2013 12:56 PM
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Sundance Review: Ryan Coogler's 'Fruitvale' Renders a Tragic Police Shooting in Personal Terms

Sundance "Fruitvale."

Moments after New Years Day 2009, 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in an altercation that didn't call for it. The officer, whose actions were captured on numerous cell phone videos, claimed he mistook his gun for his taser and eventually went to jail -- but the damage was done. Grant, the father of a four-year-old attempting to get his life together, died the next morning. His death led to protests in the area and national discussion, but the particulars of the life lost in the scuffle received less scrutiny.

Now that has changed with "Fruitvale," an incredibly moving and confident first feature written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Opening with the shaky-cam footage of the incident in question, Coogler's script then rewinds 12 hours to explore the final day of Grant's life. Played by up-and-comer Michael B. Jordan ("Chronicle") with enormous restraint and pathos to spare, Grant develops into a deeply sympathetic young man over the course of the movie, which makes the imminent climax particularly tough to watch. Coogler's camera captures the details unavailable to the recording devices that captured Grant's death -- namely, the whole story.

Coogler's camera captures the details unavailable to the recording devices that captured Grant's death -- namely, the whole story.

Perpetually stoned and often squabbling with his longtime girlfriend (a sassy Melanie Diaz), Grant hides from her the fact that he has lost his job at the supermarket, then wastes several hours wandering around town. Although he makes no grand claims to New Year resolutions, it's clear from Coogler's perceptive screenplay that Grant wants to get his act together. Whether calling his grandmother or randomly attempting to assist an injured dog in the middle of the street, seemingly everything Grant does reflects his desire to be a better person, but he lacks any specific means of achieving that goal aside from his aimless perseverance. "I can't lose," he says when speaking of his future job prospects, but nothing seems to be playing out in his favor.  

While well-grounded by its lead performances, "Fruitvale" suffers from the nature of its premise: The arbitrary quality of Grant's day leads to a cluttered middle section that essentially repeats many of the struggles of the character already established early on. Coogler's decisions to superimpose text messages on the screen and sometimes rely on heavy-handed monologues distract from the overall fluidity of the movie.

But "Fruitvale" is largely sustained by Jordan's career-making performance and the way Coogler uses it to analyze his subject: While in death, Grant was martyred for causes ranging from police brutality to race, his blackness is treated as beside the point. Instead, Grant comes across as an everyman slacker with the same problems that plague any number of lower-class young adults. It's a fascinating investigation into the contrast between media perception and intimate truths.

That's enough to keep "Fruitvale" fairly engaging for most of its running time, but the events that take place shortly after midnight deliver on the grueling experience promised in the movie's opening moments. In a stunning reenactment unfolding in real time, a charming New Year's party shared by train riders when the vehicle stalls at midnight flows naturally into tragedy with a gripping pace. The incredible cavalcade of events that lead to the shooting might seem forced were they not rooted in the footage from the outset, but that specific incident holds less power than the scenes following it. When the full impact of Grant's death comes to the fore for the people closest to him, "Fruitvale" generates tears to express the same rage found in the protests following the tragedy. It makes the cause personal.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Enthusiastically received at Sundance, "Fruitvale" has sparked a bidding war for its stature as an effective tearjerker, but its downbeat premise makes it a tough commercial gamble. In the right hands, however, it could generate further acclaim in theatrical release and even turn into an awards contender.


  • James | February 16, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    First off, concerning this incident, I think Oscar Grant should NOT have been shot. With that said, I have to say, Mel is correct about Oscar Grant. He was a parolee at the time of the incident. He served 2 years in jail for drug dealing, resisting arrest, carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle, and few more felonies in 2006. Grant has a long history of breaking the law. In fact, a gun was found 20 feet away from Grant's body at the time of the Fruitvale incident. On Grant's last arrest in 2006, he was stopped in his car by San Leandro Police and was carrying a loaded firearm which he tried to conceal and throw away. It sounds like he did the same thing at Fruitvale. I think there were a lot of components at play here, especially from the police side regarding officer safety. Any way, I think many people are fixated on the cell phone movie clips alone and whatever else Grant's family and supporters want the masses to believe. It seems that his family and supporters have raised Oscar Grant to a level of martyr or as a person who could do no wrong. I think people need to look at the whole picture on both sides, police and victim - and then make an honest assessment. I think this film does not accurately offer a balanced perspective or gives the viewer the 'Big Picture' of the whole incident. Just my perspective.

  • Andi | March 4, 2013 10:36 PM

    Police officers have intense jobs. I have no idea what they go through daily. Your point makes sense: know the facts, make a choice.

    But here's where your off.

    Privilege allows you and many others to nurture a mentality that (whether or not you intend to do so) feeds a discourse that says "this kid wasn't a saint." And I could be wrong (it's happened once before) but this discourse helps you and many others to avoid fully accepting that extreme racial privilege exists so you can continue to believe that whatever merrit achieved by you and many others happened as a result of your incredible life ethic.

  • hermes | January 22, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    Sensible review of a tough movie. Reality movies of gruesome real world events need some sanitization

  • Matt | January 22, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Mel must be the cop that shot Oscar or at least a close friend of his.

  • Mel | January 22, 2013 1:39 PM

    ... and Matt must be a douche.

  • Mel | January 21, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    What a load. Oscar Grant was a drug dealer and a junkie, who was on parole for yet another crime, when he was out after curfew on New Year's Day, causing a gang fight on the BART train, while terrorizing other passengers. Had he been at home with his daughter, instead of out causing trouble, he would still be alive today. A sick, depraved film about a sick, depraved family. Not to mention the numerous lies Coogler tells in the film. I give it an F-.

  • wert | January 26, 2013 11:08 AM

    And Mel, you're an annoying douche trying to start shit in an internet comments section, and most likely an equally worthless asshole in your offline life too, but I still don't think you deserve to be shot in the head.

  • whyf | January 22, 2013 11:02 PM

    Mel, I assume you have evidence, not just your hyperbole, to back this up...