Although he has a real-life story of relatively recent vintage to tell in Fruitvale Station – one that, in light of the Trayvon Martin killing and its frustrating aftermath, is enthrallingly relevant to our times – writer-director Ryan Coogler chooses to begin his exceptionally accomplished debut feature with a storytelling device that recalls, of all things, classic film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Borrowing a page from such fatalistic melodramas as D.O.A., Detour and Double Indemnity, Coogler begins more or less at the end, when his lead character’s fate is irreversibly sealed. Then Coogler proceeds to detail the events that took his protagonist to this point, retracing his steps in such a way that – because we know what awaits him at the end – the journey feels less like a series of arbitrary incidents than a riveting progression toward a tragic inevitability.
For the makers of film noir, this sort of narrative structure served well to enhance the suspense as their anti-heroes were methodically undone by poor judgment, cruel coincidence, or both.
But Coogler has a different aim.
Then the cellphone-captured footage gives way to fact-based dramatization, and the narrative jumps back 24 hours, so that Coogler can show us the final, fateful day in the life of a man who has no idea what a terribly unjust quietus awaits him.
Please don’t misunderstand: Fruitvale Station is not a simplistic story about a slaughtered innocent. Coogler is too intelligent and truthful a storyteller to try stoking our outrage by deifying Oscar Grant. Instead, he presents the unfortunate young man as recognizably human and undeniably flawed, unhappy about his past and uncertain about his future.
He’s reflexively helpful to a young woman he meets at the food store where he used to work, to the point of calling his grandmother to give her some cooking tips. But then he runs into his former boss, and the confrontation very nearly turns ugly as Oscar, barely able to contain his fury, learns there’s no way, absolutely no way, that he’s getting his old job back. At that point, you can’t help wondering whether his chronic tardiness wasn’t the only reason he got fired.
At another point, there’s a flashback to Oscar’s prison stretch – specifically, a recollection of a visit from his loving but not infinitely patient mom, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, whose performance is an achingly precise thing of beauty). The conversation starts off amiable, if slightly strained, then erupts into angry recriminations, and ends with Wanda departing in a huff, and a suddenly vulnerable Grant crying out, in vain, for her embrace. (His plea is echoed in a later scene that has the impact of a gut-punch.)