I know if anybody finds this review and reads it, I’m going to get a lot of hate, but this is not a good movie. I want to preface everything I’m about to say by saying that what happened January 1, 2009 sucks. It really, really sucks. But just because there is a tragic event, and there is a movie made based on that tragic event, that doesn’t mean that the movie is automatically good. And this movie is not good.
On New Year’s Eve, 2008, a man named Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) went out on the town with his friends. After getting into a confrontation on BART, he and his friends were made to sit at the titular Fruitvale Station while the police sorted things out. Oscar tried to talk his way out of the situation, and was detained on the ground and handcuffed. As he struggled, the cop on top of him reached for his Taser, grabbed his gun instead and shot Oscar in the back to death. It was a horrible accident, and the police officer responsible was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison. The movie tells a fictional story of Oscar’s day leading up to the incident as he struggles to turn his life around.
This is a movie that wants to tell you how to think and what to feel. It opens with the original amateur footage taken of Oscar Grant’s death, playing uninterrupted until the shot is fired. It is extremely hard to watch and it is very apparent that the filmmakers want you to go into the film with that anger and frustration, knowing that this guy is going to die in the end. What follows, however, is a little over an hour of various reasons why the filmmakers want you to love this guy. He’s a loving father and devoted boyfriend, he’s nice to everyone and everyone acknowledges how nice he is. He’s been in jail and sold drugs, but it’s okay because he’s turning his life around. He has a short temper and an anger problem, but it’s okay because all of his anger is completely justified. Even when he does wrong, this man can do no wrong. It is made abundantly clear that writer and director Ryan Coogler cares deeply about his subject, but does not know how to portray him in a realistic light.
In contrast, the police officers at the end of the film are shown as despicable human beings who cannot and will not be sympathized with. Even the police officer, who was proven in a court of law to have accidentally pulled his gun rather than intentionally, is demonized. The officer isn’t given any lines, even the “Oh my God” that he shouted in the original video after pulling the trigger. The epilogue is also worded in a way that sounds doubtful of the officer’s claim that it was an accident. There’s a very evident bias here that is fueled by anger, and the filmmakers want you to be angry too. They want you to feel as if justice was not done. It makes me wonder why they didn’t just make a documentary.
From a completely cinematic standpoint, I also felt that the writing was very pretentious and hacky. There were artistic moments throughout that spread way too thick for what they were worth. For instance, at one point Oscar goes to a gas station, and while there he sees a stray dog. Unlike a normal human being, he begins to pet the dog and the dog happens to be friendly. The moment that Oscar turns away from the dog, it is hit by a speeding car that drives off as if nothing happened. The dog dies in Oscar’s arms, symbolizing Oscar’s alleged innocence and foreshadowing his demise. It’s really obvious what they’re doing and it just doesn’t work. If you’re going to do something like that, you have to at least make it relevant to the plot of the film. You can argue it was for character development, but it doesn’t develop him any more than the film already had to this point. I also had a few nitpicks, nothing that should be held against the film, but that still bugged me. Things like, it says that Oscar was in prison in 2007, and when his mother visits, she says that Oscar’s daughter saw WALL•E in theaters with Oscar before he went to prison. WALL•E didn’t come out until the summer of 2008. Again, not a big deal, but it shows a lack of fact-checking, which is not good when you’re basing a story off of real life.
I’ll admit that I don’t know all the facts, and I don’t know what type of person Oscar Grant was in real life. He really could have been a great guy, and regardless of that, what happened to him was terrible. It’s so easy to get caught up in the emotion of a tragedy, and I understand that movies are an emotional medium, but when the filmmakers hammer it in so arrogantly and incessantly, I can’t as a critic just allow that. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and it is absolutely rampant in this film. With emotions high due to the George Zimmerman case recently, I can understand why this movie is being thrown around as an Oscar contender. At best, I would say Michael B. Jordan deserves a nomination, maybe. His performance isn’t great or profound, but I have no problem with him being nominated. I would hope that the Academy would look at this film from an objective standpoint, but I hate to say that doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen. And I get that, I just don’t like it.
*I used a slightly different style of writing for this review than what I used to do. In short, this entire review was “written” using the iPhone 4S’s speech-to-text function. It’s a little more natural and it shows you how similar my writing has always been to my normal speech patterns (though admittedly I did edit it a little bit). Let me know in the comments if this style works, or if I’m a terrible writer who shouldn’t even be allowed to own pencils.*