POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2013
In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III, unarmed and lying face down on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The incident, captured on video by onlookers, incited protest, unrest and arguments similar to those that would swirl around the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida a few years later. The deaths of these and other young black men (Grant was 22) touch some of the rawest nerves in the body politic and raise thorny and apparently intractable issues of law and order, violence and race.
Those matters are hardly absent from "Fruitvale Station," Ryan Coogler's powerful and sensitive debut feature, which imaginatively reconstructs the last 24 or so hours of Oscar Grant's life, flashing back from a horrifying snippet of actual cellphone video of the hectic moments before the shooting.
But Coogler, a 27-year-old Bay Area native who went to film school at the University of Southern California, examines his subject with a steady, objective eye and tells his story in the key of wise heartbreak rather than blind rage. It is not that the movie is apolitical or disengaged from the painful, public implications of Grant's fate. But everything it has to say about class, masculinity and the tricky relations among different kinds of people in a proudly diverse and liberal metropolis is embedded in details of character and place.
As played by Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard to devotees of "Friday Night Lights," although to fans of "The Wire" he will always be Wallace), Oscar is a case study in confusion, unsure of where he's going and a source of worry to those who love him. He dotes on his daughter, Tatiana, and seems sincere in his desire — if not entirely steady in his resolve — to stay with her mother, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). His own mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), is still able to boss him around, and he spends a lot of the day shopping for her birthday party.
There is a natural, easy sweetness to Oscar, but neither Coogler's script nor Jordan's performance sugarcoats his temperament. He is, for one thing, irresponsible and not always honest, unable to admit to Sophina or Wanda that he has been fired from his supermarket job for chronic lateness. Even after two stints in prison (one visited in the film's only chronological digression), he is still selling drugs, and his vows to stop have the feel of New Year's resolutions, inspiring more hope than confidence.
A few moments lean a bit too hard on our dread-filled foreknowledge of Oscar's tragic end. The lost dog he encounters at a gas station might as well have "Metaphor" stamped on its collar.
But Coogler, with a ground-level, hand-held shooting style that sometimes evokes the spiritually alert naturalism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, has enough faith in his actors and in the intrinsic interest of the characters' lives to keep overt sentimentality and message mongering to a minimum. You get the sense that he might have made this movie even if the world had not handed him a terrible true story, and made any day in the life of Oscar Grant into a sad, touching and subtle film.
And, in truth, Coogler has made that movie, even as he has also made one full of anger, grief and frustration. His main intention — and his great achievement, as well as Jordan's — is to make Oscar a fully human presence, to pay him the respect of acknowledging his complexities and contradictions. The radicalism of "Fruitvale Station" lies precisely here, in its refusal to turn a man into a symbol.
Nearly every black man, whether or not he is president, tends to be flattened out by popular culture and the psychopathology of everyday American life, rendered as an innocent victim, a noble warrior or a menace to society. There is a dehumanizing violence in this habit, a willed, toxic blindness that "Fruitvale Station" at once exposes and resists.
The other characters, the social environment they navigate and the language they speak are treated with a similarly nuanced attention. Sophina and Wanda have their own burdens and distractions, and they deal with Oscar's shortcomings as well as they can. The streets of Hayward, Oakland and San Francisco and the cars of the BART trains are places of happy chaos and spontaneous solidarity, but also contested spaces where violence often seems close at hand.
Even as it unfolds with a terrible sense of inevitability, "Fruitvale Station" is rarely predictable. The climactic encounter with BART police officers erupts in a mood of vertigo-inducing uncertainty, defusing facile or inflammatory judgments and bending the audience's reflexive emotional horror and moral outrage toward a necessary and difficult ethical inquiry. How could this have happened? How did we — meaning any one of us who might see faces like our own depicted on that screen — allow it?
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times