A well-intentioned attempt to put a human face on the tragic headlines surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old California resident fatally shot by a San Francisco transit police officer on New Year’s Day, 2009, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s confident debut feature, “Fruitvale,” gets significant mileage from Michael B. Jordan’s star turn. Yet even if every word of Coogler’s account of the last day in Grant’s life held up under close scrutiny, the film would still ring false in its relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject. Best viewed as an ode to victim’s rights, “Fruitvale” forgoes nuanced drama for heart-tugging, head-shaking and rabble-rousing.
Given the facts of the case, the eyewitness video recordings on YouTube of Grant’s shooting, and the still raw nature of the material, it’s difficult to begrudge such an emotion-driven approach, particularly considering the smear campaign that followed Grant’s death. Coogler clearly feels a deep warmth for the lives he’s depicting onscreen, which should be reciprocated by audiences starved for tender portraits of black family life. But that affection gets in the way of a more complex examination of human nature and the thornier issues of how such tragedies happen, serving instead to make viewers feel real good before they feel real mad.
Consequently, “Fruitvale” piles on examples of Grant as a loving boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), son to Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), with only fleeting glimpses of his foibles. Sophina remains angry about a recent affair Oscar had (though she has to forgive him, because he’s so darn sweet). He also spent time in prison (for reasons never made clear), has a temper that occasionally flares up and was fired from his grocery store job for missing work. Yet there’s never any question that by the time we meet him, all of this dubious stuff is firmly in Oscar’s past, and he’s dedicated himself to pursuing a better life.
Jordan, already a standout player on TV’s “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” leaves no doubt he’s ready for leading-man status with a typically charismatic and naturalistic performance that puts auds firmly on Grant’s side. The actor is so convincing that there’s no need to stack the deck with scenes of Grant tending to a stray dog injured in a hit-and-run, phoning his grandma to help a stranger decide what kind of fish to fry for her boyfriend, and convincing a grouchy store owner to re-open his establishment so two women can use the bathroom.
But if Coogler’s intent is to rile up moviegoers and fill them with dread for the inevitable (glimpsed in cell-phone footage in the film’s opening moments), he succeeds at the most basic level. Every mention of an alternative plan for New Year’s Eve becomes an ominous “what if?” scenario, while the genuine concern Wanda and Tatiana show for Oscar’s well-being just hours before his death underlines the magnitude of their impending loss. Few would deny Grant’s killing was senseless and deplorable, but “Fruitvale” mostly functions to further the transformation of a flesh-and-blood man into an unintentional martyr.
Performances are strong across the board, even if no one beyond Jordan, Diaz and Spencer is asked to do very much. Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray have the daunting tasks of bringing the two BART officers central to Grant’s death to the screen, though both characters’ names have been changed. (The officer who actually shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 18 months in prison.)
Tech credits are solid, with Rachel Morrison’s fluid handheld camerawork giving the actors room to breathe, and sound designer Bob Edwards’ work especially attuned to the power of silence.