Fruitvale Station opens with real camera-phone footage, taken by a passenger on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train that had pulled into a stop in downtown Oakland. It's a little past 2 in the morning on New Year's Day 2009, and the cars are packed with revelers returning to the East Bay from the fireworks and celebrations in San Francisco.
And there on the platform, leaning against a wall and ringed by BART police, is Oscar Grant. A 22-year-old African American who had been taken from the train in the wake of a disturbance, Grant is seen arguing with officers, talking on his cellphone, and then pinned to the ground. You can hear a shot on the phone's audio.
One of the BART cops had fired his gun at close range. Grant, unarmed, died hours later at a hospital.
Fruitvale Station, boasting a deeply nuanced performance by Michael B. Jordan as Grant, reconstructs - and, in some instances, reimagines - the events of the day and night leading up to this tragic episode. It's an episode that can't help but reverberate now, in the days following the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, acquitted in the shooting death of young African American Trayvon Martin. But while issues of race, rage, and the use of deadly force are at the heart of both stories, it does the victims an injustice to lump them together. (The police officer in the Grant case was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.)
And that is exactly the strength of writer/director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station: It humanizes Grant, makes him something more than another grim statistic. Showing Grant as an imperfect but affable man, a guy whose friends called him "Osc" and who went out of his way to please whoever he was with, the film avoids the trap of setting its protagonist up as a hero, a saint.
He wants to be a good father to the daughter he has with his girlfriend, Sophina (a very good Melonie Diaz). He makes plans for the birthday dinner for his mother (Octavia Spencer). He tries to assure Sophina that his cheating days are done with. But he isn't straight with her about his job - he was let go at the supermarket. We see flashbacks to his time in San Quentin - he had been convicted of selling drugs. And now, with no paychecks coming in, he's tempted to start dealing again.
There's a beautifully tough scene midway through Fruitvale Station: Grant finds a stray dog, injured, along the side of the road. The moment is as close as things get to being heavy-handed - illustrating Grant's sense of struggle and isolation, and foreshadowing the violence to come. But Jordan holds back, and the handheld camera turns and wheels with restraint.
Oscar Grant had friends, he had a sister and a mother and a grandmother, a girlfriend, a child. In concise measures, Fruitvale Station shows us these connections, these bonds. And it shows us the everyday pressures and problems, the joys and pleasures, experienced by someone moving through life. And then that BART train pulls into Fruitvale, and the rest is history.
Fruitvale Station **** (out of four stars)
Directed by Ryan Coogler. With Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five and AMC Cherry Hill/NJ