Ryan Coogler’s remarkable “Fruitvale Station” begins with jittery cellphone footage, and, at first, we’re not quite sure exactly what we’re seeing: a train station, a group of men being subdued by uniformed officers, a young black man forced onto the concrete floor. But there’s no question of what we hear: a gunshot, sudden and sharp; the sound of a life ending.
Early in the morning of New Year’s Day, 2009, Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at an Oakland, Calif., station. Grant, who was part of a group pulled off a train by police investigating a fight, was unarmed and lying facedown. He was 22 years old. (The officer, initially charged with murder, was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served less than a year in prison.) “Fruitvale Station,” though it begins with real-life footage, is not a documentary; instead, it’s a fact-based portrait of Grant’s last day, and a moving reminder that he wasn’t a statistic but somebody’s father, somebody’s friend, somebody’s son.
Grant, played with weary optimism by Michael B. Jordan (TV’s “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights”), was no saint: He’d served time in jail on drug-related charges (we see this in a brief flashback), frustrating his loving mother (Octavia Spencer, a beacon of strength here); lost his supermarket job for showing up late too often; and wasn’t always faithful to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) or sufficiently attentive to their daughter (Ariana Neal). But the young man we meet here is trying to do better, sensing that maybe it’s not too late for a do-over. “I’m tired,” he says, looking too young for the words. “Trying to start over fresh.”
And so we see him buying fish for his mother’s birthday dinner that night, pleading with his old boss (unsuccessfully) for his job back, taking his little girl to day care, talking to family members on the phone, trying to shake away his past, planning the evening’s New Year’s Eve festivities in the city — and, finally, on a stretcher in a coldly lit hospital morgue, viewed by his heartbroken mother. Coogler has one misstep — a scene in which Oscar watches a dog die feels overly laden with symbolism and foreshadowing — but otherwise “Fruitvale Station” is an eloquent memorial for a man who barely experienced life, and a haunting reminder of how quickly it can be lost.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org