When 22-year-old Oscar Grant III woke up the morning of December 31, 2008, little did he know that he would lose his life in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 on an Oakland train platform at the hands of a white train police officer who would shoot him in the back while lying down. The incident was captured by dozens of digital and cellphone cameras, sparking protests and riots. The officer who shot Oscar, Johannes Mehserle, claimed to have been reaching for his taser gun. Originally charged with murder, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years minus time served.
“Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s moving directorial feature debut, opens with actual cellphone footage of the incident. Coogler could have taken the easy, polemical way out; but by focusing on Oscar’s final hours, he has delivered a poignant, subtle, complex and very human portrait of a man brought down by circumstances and, yes, prejudice. Oscar is never sanctified; Coogler gives equal weight to Oscar’s virtues and flaws while depicting all those little daily rituals we take for granted until it’s too late.
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan from “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”) starts his morning by taking his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) to work and his four-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to pre-school. He spends the rest of this final day buying groceries for his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday celebration, trying to convince his former manager at a grocery store to hire him back (Oscar has yet to tell both Wanda and Sophina that he was fired), dumping a bag of marijuana (his only source of income) into the ocean after having second thoughts, picking up his daughter and wife and preparing for that evening’s birthday and New Year’s celebrations. Wanda is the one that suggests he take public transportation to the celebrations downtown. It’s quite an uneventful, happy evening until a fight breaks up in the train on the way back and the police step in.
Coogler only alludes once to Oscar’s criminal past in a devastating flashback: Wanda visits Oscar a year before in jail and after hearing his same old lame excuses and witnessing a tense exchange between him and a racist prisoner, she dispenses some tough love by announcing that she will not visit him again in jail.
Oscar may have flaws, but there is also a lot of good in him: the way he dotes on Tatiana or for that matter all the women in his life, including his grandmother; how he helps a white grocery store shopper with her evening dinner plans even though he’s been fired (although that slight step she takes to the side says a lot about her own perceptions), and the pain he feels after a stray dog is run over by a car (some critics have found this scene heavy-handed; I did not).
And yet, it’s not as black and white as the above description seems to suggest, thanks to Jordan’s layered performance and Coogler’s confident direction. He portrays Oscar as a man facing a crossroads, trying to control his worst impulses while trying to do good for himself and his family; he’s an angry man and a good man, a decent man but not a perfect one. He is tightly wound at times, always looking around and over his shoulders, finding solace in those small moments that make life worth living.
Equal kudos go to the Spencer-Diaz-Neal trifecta, especially Spencer who delivers a far more convincing, powerful performance here than her attention-grabbing one in “The Help.” Just pay attention to that flashback scene, how her eyes express a truckload of emotions, from pain and sadness to tough determination. The final scene, at the hospital, is equally heartbreaking, as she asks Oscar’s friends to use their anger to lift their friend’s spirit up.
Melonie Diaz’ performance is as thoughtful and heartfelt as Jordan’s, a woman far more mature than Oscar but as loving and caring as her boyfriend. You can see why these two were meant for each other, even with his philandering. And Neal is a treat as Tatiana; you can feel the joy Tatiana feels when she is with her father and her fear when hearing those New Year’s Eve fireworks explode in her neighborhood. These three women are Oscar’s true anchors.
Coogler’s script relies on public records and interviews with Grant’s family to tell its story but he also, unavoidably for drama requires it, takes minimal creative license in portraying those hours leading to the incident. He changes the names of some of the individuals involved, for example. But these liberties do not detract from the film’s cumulative emotional impact, especially in the final minutes of the film, as Oscar’s family and friends wait for news on his condition.
The shadow of Trayvor Martin and George Zimmerman’s trial hang heavy over the film. And that is a good thing. Given the media bloviating around the case, a film like “Fruitvale Station” provides audiences with a human and level-headed vehicle to engage in dialogue…like good art always does. But also and most importantly, “Fruitvale Station” is a damn good American independent movie, one that deals with real issues and real people and not with the romantic and professional dilemmas of privileged hipsters. “Fruitvale Station” is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of the year.