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Fruitvale Station review

Based on a true tragedy...

When Fruitvale Station played Sundance last year, it walked away with both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award – just the fourth film in the history of the festival to do so. It was a triumphant moment for a film so steeped in the tragedy of one man, Oscar Grant, who lost his life in the early hours of January 2009.

Living in Oakland, California, 22-year-old Grant was caught up in a nothing-scuffle on a train as it pulled into Fruitvale Station. Before he knew what was happening, he was face-down on the platform; within seconds, a policeman fired a bullet into him.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler pulls no punches, opening the film with actual camera-phone footage (easily available on YouTube) that was shot by onlookers that night. What follows is a reconstruction of Grant’s final 24 hours.

Played by Michael B. Jordan, in what is likely to become a career-defining role, Grant’s day begins as he loses his job at the grocery story, despite seeming like a model employee (even phoning his grandma to help a customer out).

The film has already drawn fire for certain scenes – like the above – where Coogler paints Grant to be something of a saint. Further moments – from Grant helping an injured dog in the street to ditching his dope and vowing to stop dealing – only reinforce that impression.

But to his credit, Coogler offers balance. There are flashbacks to Grant in jail, losing his rag as his mother Wanda ( The Help (opens in new tab) ’s Octavia Spencer) arrives to visit. And we see him placating girlfriend Sophina (Melondie Diaz) – mother to his daughter – for a recent affair.

While you can debate Coogler’s characterisation, what can’t be denied is just how powerful the final scenes are. Burning with injustice, the director shoots it unsparingly. Showing us a senseless loss of life, you’ll leave the cinema with howls of rage ringing in your ear.

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James Mottram

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.