Fruitvale Station Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated R. Opens Friday.
On January 1, 2009—from the perspective of those involved, it was really late New Year’s Eve, about 2:15 a.m.—a young black man named Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a white transit cop on a BART platform in Oakland, California. The victim was unarmed, and witnesses wielding cell-phone cameras captured a minor confrontation, in which Grant was mostly compliant, that in no way suggested the need for deadly force. Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of this tragic incident, and you’d think that the primary question on its mind would be fairly simple: How did this happen? Unfortunately, writer-director Ryan Coogler poses a different, much less compelling, arguably irrelevant question: How could this possibly have happened to such a swell guy?
Rather than examine the mind-set of the officer who shot Grant, which might have raised some tough questions about law enforcement and the abuse of power, Fruitvale Station gives us a day-long portrait of Oscar Grant, Unwitting Martyr. He’s no saint, mind you, having dealt drugs in his spare time for the past several years. On this particular day, however—the day of his forthcoming death—he makes the decision to give up that life and go on the straight and narrow. We see that he loves his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), his daughter (Ariana Neal), and his mother (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer). When a clueless white woman comes into the supermarket where he works, seeking advice about a fish fry she’s preparing, Oscar helpfully puts her on the phone with his grandma. In the movie’s most shameless scene, he even sees a dog get hit by a car and tenderly cradles the poor thing in his arms as it dies. Foreshadowing!
As Grant, Michael B. Jordan (previously best known for playing teenage drug dealer Wallace on The Wire) gives a hugely likeable, deeply felt performance, which goes a long way toward making the climactic scene on the BART platform a powerful experience. But the vast majority of Fruitvale Station is a pandering exercise in deck-stacking—one that seems to believe we couldn’t possibly care about an unjustified police shooting unless we personally like the victim. However unintended, that’s a cynical perspective.