The Weinstein Company didn’t intend to release Fruitvale Station in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Things just worked out that way. Truthfully, any time would be good to see this drama that expands this week to a theater near you. The winner of top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, Fruitvale Station is more than just a vehicle for some great new talent. It’s a finely wrought piece of work that slowly gathers momentum until it achieves shattering force.
This is what happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009: Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old recently unemployed man and convicted small-time drug dealer, was returning home from New Year’s celebrations in San Francisco when a fight broke out on the Bay Area Rapid Transit train as it pulled into Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. While several African-American passengers (including Grant) were arrested by transit police at the scene, it was Grant who was fatally shot by a white officer while he was unarmed, handcuffed, and lying face-down on the platform. Onlookers recorded the incident on their phones, and the video went viral, reaching some Bay Area residents while they were still at parties.
The film begins by showing that video footage and then proceeds into a careful dramatic reconstruction of the last day of Grant’s life. Many of the scenes were filmed in the same locations that Grant visited, including the train platform where the shooting took place. A few incidents have been added for effect such as Oscar’s encounter with a stray dog, but first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler (an African-American and Oakland native who was born a few months after Grant) mostly sticks to Grant’s movements, phone calls, and text messages for his story.
The resulting movie feels loose and baggy the way most unremarkable days do, but there’s actually a rigorous structure underlying its inexorable march toward Oscar’s end. Coogler’s treatment is free of any frills — even the big, glowing letters that appear on the screen when Oscar texts someone are functional storytelling devices instead of visual flourishes. Nor does the movie aim for any grand statement about race relations in America, although the multicultural Oakland setting and the Latino, Asian, and white characters with whom Oscar freely associates stand in pretty well for our many-colored nation. Coogler’s tone is calm and measured, and he keeps his focus on the smaller details of Oscar’s life, letting us draw our own conclusions from scenes such as Oscar’s friendly encounter with a reformed (white and white-collar) criminal who now owns his own business.
This approach might threaten to be too dry if Michael B. Jordan didn’t give a star-making performance as Oscar. The 27-year-old actor has specialized in playing beautiful, tragically doomed young men in Chronicle and TV’s The Wire. Here he makes funny faces in the mirror as Oscar encourages his young daughter (Ariana Neal) to brush her teeth and flashes a more grown-up sort of charisma while helping a supermarket customer (Ahna O’Reilly) shop for a fish fry. In contrast, there’s a flashback to Oscar being visited in prison by his mom (Octavia Spencer), where he goes from joking with her to instant, white-hot rage after a passing inmate insults her, and you understand how he landed in trouble. (The acting in that scene by Jordan and Spencer, who gives a stripped-down, unself-pitying performance, is just awe-inspiring.) Above all, you sense his weariness with living like a thug and his desire to repair his relationship with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and get his family on more solid footing.
Jordan and Coogler make Oscar’s ordinariness into something deeply moving. He has cheated on his girlfriend, and he’s not particularly brave or smart, but he’s trying to find a legitimate way to make a living, he’s trying to be a better father to his little girl, and he pulls strings to get extra crabs for his mom’s birthday dinner. He’s killed for no reason, and Coogler powerfully brings home the waste of this young man’s life and the terrible sadness for his loved ones in never being able to see his smile again. In telling this simple story so expertly, Coogler makes this into a tragedy that all of us can feel and makes Fruitvale Station into a great film.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated R.