You’d have to be a complete hack to make a film about Oscar Grant that leaves a dry eye in the audience. Grant’s story comes inherent with an emotional gut punch. Judging by the sniffles heard in the theatre (my own included), first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler proves to be no such hack.
Grant was a 22-year-old African-American who left behind his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter when Bay Area Rapid Transit Police killed him without cause on New Year's morning, 2009. Named after the site of the tragedy, Fruitvale Station opens with the viral cell phone video of Grant’s murder taken from a train packed with witnesses.
Coogler then rewinds to the night before. Oscar, a winning personality played by Michael B. Jordan, attempts to make up to his girlfriend Sophina (the wonderful Melonie Diaz) for a past indiscretion. That’s not all Oscar has to make amends for. He’s served time for drug and gun charges (Coogler avoids such specifics), stints that kept Oscar away from Sophina and their young daughter.
According to family and friends, Oscar put his best foot forward to push his life in the right direction. That’s what Coogler chronicles in an artistically licensed version of Oscar’s last hours. Oscar’s errands include dropping Sophina off to work, picking up crabs for his mother’s birthday party and making an effort to get his job back. All the while the strain of being a young black man gently asserts itself throughout the day.
Through such mundane details (and some not so mundane), Coogler paints a touching, human portrait—an alternative to the tragic cell phone video that merely shows another black casualty. The film illustrates Oscar’s stressed but affectionate relationship with his mother (Octavia Spencer), his charming interactions with friends, extended family and even strangers, and above all, his tenderness as a father.
Coogler piles the artifice on a bit heavy, going above and beyond to color Grant in the warmest hues possible—the violent temper and spotted past being the exception. Such embellishments are unnecessary, since Oscar’s fate is heartbreaking on its own terms. Sweetening the pot adds little to the fury of seeing it all boil over.
Jordan—whose Wallace was the beating heart of The Wire’s first season—delivers a raw, naturalistic performance in a demanding role. His Oscar is a personality that can be likeable, threatening, adoring and irresponsible at the same time.
Jordan wins you over completely before the devastating finale, which Coogler handles masterfully. Those pulse-quickening moments at Fruitvale Station capture the chaos, confusion, fear and hate that created the perfect storm for tragedy.
'Fruitvale Station' is out in Canada on July 26.
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