Police brutality on film

Ryan Coogler makes his directorial debut with Fruitvale Station — a film that made waves at Cannes this year — recounting the true story of police brutality after a fight on a San Francisco transit train.

Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal in Fruitvale Station

When I saw Fruitvale Station at its Cannes premiere in May, I witnessed an emotional outburst rarely seen in movie audiences these days. Audience and cast-members were sobbing and clapping — I have never witnessed a crowd so moved by a movie before.

Fruitvale Station is the first feature-length film by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler. It recounts the well-known incident of police brutality stirred by a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train returning from San Francisco on Jan. 1, 2009. When police are made aware of a fight that’s taking place, they force a number of suspects outside the train and what unfolds goes beyond tragic misunderstanding and crosses into racism and prejudice.

What makes Fruitvale Station stand out is its circular narrative. The film begins with an actual cell phone video of the incident, so we know from the beginning what is going to take place in the end. The plot then backtracks to a day earlier and we enter the life of Oscar Grant (Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordan), a young father trying to shake off his drug-dealing past and get his job back at a local grocery store. The movie essentially gives us insight into his daily routine and what we learn is that Oscar is just a regular guy who wants to lead a normal life with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter (Ariana Neal). Octavia Spencer plays Grant’s mother Wanda, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray take their turns as the officers in the film’s final confrontation.

This is a hard movie to peg for the simple reason that, on paper, the story itself is painfully familiar. But it’s the gripping performances, especially by Jordan and Diaz, as well as the powerful use of narrative, that make Fruitvale Station unique. Coogler wrote the script, which stays true to the actual story and follows the social realist tradition of films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour, which also deal with police brutality and which Coogler has cited as inspiration for Fruitvale’s narrative structure.

Ultimately, the final blow comes from the fact that we get to know Oscar Grant, whose struggles are up front and centre for all to see. One thing Coogler does not do is paint him as a saint. In a culture where villainy is almost glorified and victims are forgotten by the media, Fruitvale Station does the opposite. Coogler takes a picture of the world in that moment, on New Year’s Eve (ironically) where instead of starting on a clean slate, things have just spiralled downward. I may have seen the film months ago but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Do yourself a favour and check it out. ■

Fruitvale Station opens Friday

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