Looking back on a tragedy, we often find ourselves struggling to piece things back together to figure out how and why fate had engineered that moment. “Zero Dark Thirty” opened with an important, engaging piece of the puzzle: audio recordings of people inside the World Trade Center phoning their loved ones. “Fruitvale Station” takes that one step further with actual video footage of a man being brought down, restrained, and shot on the platform of the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station.
Will this become a trend in movies that label themselves “based on a true story?” I hope not, because that gives the impression that the events portrayed are factual. “Zero Dark Thirty” was certainly not entirely factual, and neither is “Fruitvale Station.” Writer and director Ryan Coogler has stretched the truth so far that only the faint outline of Oscar Grant III’s final day alive remains. Grant was, by all accounts, not a bad man. He is portrayed here as a martyr, a modern Christ figure murdered in cold blood by a racist, gun-waving stereotype of a psychopathic policeman.
If who you are is determined by how you act and what you have done, then Coogler has replaced Grant with a kinder, less-flawed man, and left Grant himself out of the movie. If Coogler had mentioned Grant’s conviction for possession of a handgun and evading arrest, instead of just the drug-dealing charges that his character arc is based off of, would audiences be less inclined to sympathize with him? I doubt it. He was still a defenseless man who was unfairly shot and killed at a young age. Was it necessary to add scenes of him caring for a dying dog or throwing his package of weed into the ocean? As far as anybody knows, he did neither. The proceedings have been drowned in artificial cinematic sweetener.
Likewise, the film also neglects to mention that Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot Grant, was by no account racist or fascist. He is only on screen for five minutes or so, but his actions are what gave this movie cause to exist, which makes him an important character. It’s worth mentioning that he was not necessarily a bad person. He had never been the subject of a sustained complaint in his time serving as a BART police officer, and he became a father the day after the shooting. Yes, Mehserle shot Grant, but the man on screen who beats and berates Grant is not him. The title cards at the end of the film do not mention any of this, instead focusing on the riots that followed the killing, painting them as an outcry for social justice. There’s even a brief shot of Grant’s real daughter crying at a protest rally.
After the shooting, Mehserle’s family received a number of death threats–his parents, girlfriend, and infant child had to relocate. Where is the social justice there? This is left out of the film. “Fruitvale Station” only portrays the black and white, skipping over all of the shades of gray in between. According to Coogler, Grant is good, Mehserle is bad, and the riots that followed were wholly justified. There is a disturbing lack of both subtlety and intricacy in what he has to say.
“Fruitvale Station” doesn’t portray facts. It’s saccharine-sweet, tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging fiction. It wants to be a victim’s-eye-view of a true crime (complete with a shaky, handheld camera following Grant throughout his day), but is too false to sell itself as such. Though the award-bait performances are all very touching (especially Michael B. Jordan as
Grant) none of it feels real. Coogler is a young director, as old as Grant would be now if he were alive. He is filled with potential and doubtlessly talented at emotional manipulation, as demonstrated by this movie. If his next feature is as dishonest as this one, all of that potential will go to waste. “Fruitvale Station” hits the heart, but completely misses the brain.