If you’re looking for a timely movie, I doubt you’ll do better than Fruitvale Station, first-time director Ryan Coogler’s sad and powerful film about Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on Jan. 1, 2009.
R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Though different in its particulars, Grant’s true-life case inevitably demands comparison with the highly publicized story of Trayvon Martin — and rightfully so. Both cases point to the vulnerability of young black men who sometimes find tragedy simply because they’re young black men.
Coogler’s movie leaves us speechless and stunned, even though we know what’s going to happen from the outset. The film’s power lies in the skill with which Coogler brings us close to a troubled young man, making sure we understand both Oscar’s strengths and his weaknesses.
Coogler isn’t out to canonize Grant, who had served prison time, smoked and sold marijuana, lost a supermarket job because of chronic tardiness and generally felt at loose ends.
But it’s also clear that Grant — played with a full range of emotions by Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights and The Wire) — is trying to listen to his better angels. We see this when he’s playing with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), whom he obviously loves, and we see it again when he finally opens up to the child’s mother (Melonie Diaz).
Oscar’s also devoted to his mother (Octavia Spencer), a woman who expects him to toe the line. During a prison visit to her son, Spencer’s character delivers a heartbreaking dose of tough love.
Although Fruitvale Station includes a few flashbacks, it mostly takes place during the last 24 hours of young Oscar’s life. He tries to persuade the manager of the supermarket where he worked to rehire him; he phones his sister; he shops for seafood for his mother’s birthday dinner; he debates with himself about the wisdom of trying to generate income by selling marijuana; and he eventually heads out for a night on the town in San Francisco with Diaz’s Sophina and a few friends.
Fearing New Year’s Eve mayhem on the roads, Oscar’s mother urges him not to drive. She thinks the train will be safer.
It wasn’t. Grant met his end on an elevated BART platform when transit cops showed up to deal with a fight on a train, a tussle instigated by a white guy looking for trouble.
Coogler isn’t interested in easy moralizing, and we hardly need a lecture to remind us of the deep injustice of what happened to Oscar. The cop who shot Grant was captured on a video made by a passenger with a cellphone — and used briefly in the movie. The officer, who said he thought he was using a taser rather than his gun, was sentenced to two years in state prison. He served a year.
To its credit, Coogler’s film never feels like a screed aimed at the police; it’s a clear-eyed view of what happened to one young black man who set out to party with friends and wound up dead.
Coogler makes it clear that Oscar was at a crossroads in his life, and we’re left to deal with the grief and bafflement created by so much unfulfilled promise. Jordan’s performance — by turns wary, charming, angry and sincere — makes us think that Oscar would have turned the corner. The only thing we can know for sure is that he damn well should have been allowed to try.