It begins with jittery camera-phone footage. Looks like a subway platform. Several young black men are being restrained by transit police. There’s shouting; commotion. A shot rings out.
The Jan. 1, 2009, shooting of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer was a case that galvanized the population, with unnerving similarities to this past weekend’s Zimmerman verdict. (As the old saying goes, the more things change ...) But Fruitvale Station, the extraordinary debut film from writer-director Ryan Coogler, leaves all that in the future, dialing back a day for a low key, humanist portrait of the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life. It’s a gentle film, with deep reservoirs of empathy and understanding. Also, it’s so terribly sad.
Oscar’s no angel, nor is he a martyr. Played in a brilliant, star-making turn by Michael B. Jordan (who TV fans know as Friday Night Lights’ quarterback Vince Howard, and, of course, Wallace from The Wire), he’s a bit of a fuck-up just barely holding it together for the sake of his family. He hasn’t told anybody yet that he lost his job at the grocery store for coming in late a few too many times. Sweating bills and the rent, there’s the temptation to go back to selling drugs. But Oscar’s already got a rap-sheet, and another bust would mean a long stay away from his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and Tatiana (Ariana Neal), the toddler daughter he dotes on.
It’s New Year’s Eve, which means a time for resolutions. It’s also his mother’s birthday, a celebration Oscar’s determined to get right after blowing so many in the past. (We see a brief, revealing flashback to the previous year, which she spent visiting him in prison.) Working with just a handful of scenes, Octavia Spencer is able to eloquently convey this woman’s unconditional love for her son, as well as her weariness with the paths he has chosen.
Fruitvale Station has a loose, hang-out vibe, just following Oscar around for a day in this Oakland community. Coogler is roughly the same age and from the Bay Area, which is probably why every detail in the picture feels so lived-in—and so right. There’s a fantastically off-hand early scene at the supermarket, where Oscar attempts to assist a well-off white woman (The Help’s Ahna O’Reilly) with the finer points of fish-fry techniques. A marvelous dance of emotions play across the actress’ face, initially alarmed at being accosted by an imposing black youth, before melting into friendliness and, eventually, even a slight flirtation. But the first impression still stings. This is all the more admirable for being treated as somewhat common, just a fact of life in Fruitvale Station.
That we already know how it will all end gives the movie’s plotlessness purpose. Every character interaction is freighted with our understanding it may be the last. Day proceeds into night with a tragic inevitability and sinking dread. It’s almost impossible not to squirm when Spencer suggests that Oscar and his friends all take the train instead of driving because it will be safer.
Coogler adopts the camera technique of brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, shooting on gorgeously grainy 16mm film in close proximity to the performers. The deliberately unshowy, European style separates Fruitvale Station from more sensationalistic “hood” movies, keeping the focus firmly on Oscar, quietly trying to make his way through a world with so few, sadly limited options. On a couple of occasions, Coogler tries to push for poetry—there’s one particularly unfortunate use of slow-motion—and only ends up breaking the film’s rapt, slice-of-life spell.
In nearly every shot of the picture, Jordan is a revelation. Oscar’s got a boyish charisma, but there’s always the sense of something churning beneath the surface. In his private moments, we can read the deep-seated anxieties, and once or twice, we see flashes of a truly scary temper. This is a great performance.
Fruitvale Station’s finest scene finds Oscar, Sophina and friends on a crowded, slow-moving BART train when all the passengers realize they’ll still be en route at the stroke of midnight. All aboard begin their own impromptu countdown—one of those great moments experienced all too rarely in city life when everybody realizes we’re all in this together, so we’d better make the best of it. It’s a momentarily joyful glimpse of a community at its best. And oh, how quickly it all goes to hell.
Closing credit title cards provide a cursory explanation of everything that followed, but they seem largely unnecessary. Fruitvale Station is most effective as a glimpse of one day in one life. Maybe it wasn’t a remarkable life. But it was a life all the same, stupidly and tragically snuffed out.