I've occasionally reported on films that benefit -- in terms of media exposure and thus selling tickets -- from coincidentally being released around the time of some similar but real-life event. Arguably the most famous, of course, was "The China Syndrome" hitting theaters around the time of the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
It's not often, however, that such cinematic coincidences involve a film that depicts a real-life event that's similar enough to another true event that really gets people talking. Such is the case with "Fruitvale Station," the dramatic depiction of the shooting of unarmed, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California in the early morning of New Year's Day 2009.
The film had its premiere on June 20, 2013, just ten days after the trial began across the country regarding the fatal shooting of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and was then released in theaters one day before jurors acquitted Zimmerman. Granted, no one wants free publicity from an event like that, and I'm guessing that while first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler is probably uncomfortable with the timing. Yet, he likely appreciates that it draws attention to the subject matter of his debut work and should get viewers and officials talking about such shootings.
Unlike the Martin-Zimmerman shooting, actual footage of Mehserle shooting Grant was captured on a witness' cell phone, and that's what Coogler uses as his opening scene. Then, and beyond a brief flashback showing the young protagonist (Michael B. Jordan) being visited by his mother (Octavia Spencer) during his prior stint in prison, the film depicts the last day of Grant's life as he spends time with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal) while planning his mom's birthday party and trying to get his life in order before celebrating the arrival of 2009.
With the real-life incident getting national news coverage back when it occurred and considering the use of that footage to open the film, there's no doubt about where the plot is headed or how things will turn out. Nonetheless, Coogler and Jordan do a fine job of getting us to actually care for the protagonist, warts and all, especially since he seems to want to turn his life around but is frustrated by obstacles in his way.
Granted, Coogler is obviously attempting to manipulate the viewer into seeing and feeling Oscar as a victim from start to finish. And that could put off some viewers who might sense that the young man wasn't quite as angelic as portrayed (at one point he helps a stranger in a grocery store learn how to fry fish by putting her on the phone with his grandmother, later helps a pregnant woman find a bathroom after everything is closed late at night in the city, and befriends a stray dog as its last moment of kindness).
I have no idea if those things actually occurred in real life, but since we know where things are headed story-wise, such small plot moments seem destined to paint the protagonist in enough of a positive light that his later victimization comes off as even more of a tragedy. None of which is any knock on Jordan's performance which is quite impressive, but a more grayish crafting of the character would have likely come off as more realistic (the man did serve two prison terms, after all).
Regardless of any of that, the pic does have an emotional pull to it even if the plot offers nothing really new regarding an ex-con trying to get his life together while the mother of his child alternates between hating and loving him. The ending in particular will certainly pull on the old heart strings, especially watching Diaz and Spencer's characters react to what transpires, and based on Jordan's ability to create a sympathetic character.
It's an impressive debut by Coogler, and once he gets a more sure and subtle hand at manipulating the viewer (something all filmmakers do as that's the nature of the beast), he could become quite the filmmaker. What's presented here is good, and it's an important film to see for its coverage of the subject matter that unfortunately is still making headlines. But the overall offering didn't devastate or wow me as it has some of my contemporaries. "Fruitvale Station" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.