“I wanted the audience to get to know the guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being you know that life means something.” -Ryan Coogler
Director Ryan Coogler has got to be one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today, right? I went into last year’s explosive boxing world drama Creed as a mildly curious Sylvester Stallone fan & left a wildly enthusiastic fan of Coogler’s touch. There’s an intimacy, violence, and empathy to that film that it had no right to carry as the seventh installment of a franchise that’s been barely limping along the last few years/decades. Ryan Coogler & Michael B Jordan gave off some Scorsese-De Niro vibes in the symbiotic way they commanded that film, a partnership they plan to carry over into the upcoming MCU episode Black Panther. What really blows my mind now is that Coogler & Jordan had already teamed up once before Creed, which apparently wasn’t even their best work to date.
Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, is the best of the director’s work so far, a truly haunting film that’s blunt in its intent, yet delicate & measured in execution. The film follows the final hours of Oscar Grant, a real life victim of police brutality who was wrongfully gunned down on New Year’s Day in 2009 at a San Franciscan rail car station. Although it’s doubtful that the Coogler & Jordan collaborative legacy is anywhere near its end, their first outing together might long prove to be their most effective. Fruitvale Station makes extremely bold choices not only in its subject, but also in decisions like including real footage of Oscar Grant’s final moments & post-burial aftermath as bookends to his story. In a way, the film’s intent to familiarize an outside audience with a faceless victim of police violence has a gentle edge to it, but the real-life footage of Grant’s tragedy/murder chills audiences to the bone before the film can even get there. As you follow a young man unknowingly marked for execution on his final day on Earth you’re never allowed to forget that he was a real person who really lived & really died in this senseless way. The result of that opening assault is never-ending, forever haunting.
So, what does Oscar Grant do for his last day alive? Not much. He plans a dinner to celebrate his mother’s birthday, spoils his kid, parties with other New Year’s Eve revelers, and tries his damnedest to hold onto a dead end job so he doesn’t have to return to a life of selling dope. It’s so eerie to watch someone act so casually on their last day breathing, especially when the film’s mood shifts from introspection to celebration minutes before Oscar is handcuffed & shot in the back for getting into a mostly harmless fight. There might be some artistic liberties Coogler takes with Grant’s exact story (such as a touching encounter he has with an injured street dog), but they serve a larger purpose: showing Oscar for the normal dude he was & explaining how he was murdered by police explicitly for being a young black man in the wrong place & time. A lot of this same territory was later covered by last year’s fierce satirical comedy Driving While Black, but even that triumph of political filmmaking is outshined by the day-in-the-life portrait Coogler & Jordan construct here.
Tragically, typifying examples of police murder cases like Michael Brown & Eric Garner have only grown in numbers since Oscar Grant was needlessly shot in the back in 2009. With each passing year Fruitvale Station becomes an even more powerful & necessary work. I’m glad to see Coogler move on & make bigger Hollywood productions as his career quickly progresses, but I hope he uses some of that newfound capital to return to the potency of his debut sometime in the future. It’s no small feat to reveal to the audience exactly what’s going to happen in your opening scene & then deliver a tense, heartfelt drama minute to minute in its wake despite that inevitability. Fruitvale Station cuts you deep with a real life tragedy in its opening gut punch, but then somehow lures you into a casual comfort before devastating you by repeating the exact same act of senseless violence in its final moments. It’s a tense, pointed work from a young director who surely has plenty more coming & I’m excited to see where he’s taking us next, even if the destinations are as grim as they are here. Especially then.