Fruitvale Station may be 2013's first must-see movie. It's a gritty, day-in-the-life account of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, a black man who was trying to get his life straightened out on New Year's Eve, 2009, before a fatal assault by white police officers on the Bay Area Rapid Transit stop which gave the film its name. Given the recent trial of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, and the ongoing "investigation" into the use of deadly force by Cleveland police officers in November 2012, this film couldn't have arrived at a more opportune time.
Social relevance notwithstanding, it's a remarkable debut feature from young African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who made Fruitvale in cooperation with Grant's mother and girlfriend and shot on location in and around Oakland. The film is carried, though, by the quietly gripping performance of 26-year-old Michael B. Jordan. It's the same type of surface-level urban machismo and rich emotional depth in a character that we saw Jordan integrate so masterfully as the young Wallace in season one of The Wire.
As Oscar Grant, Jordan is a lovable father and reluctant marijuana distributor, a sympathetic guy who's been in and out of prison and recently fired, but who tries — despite his woes — to do right by his family and friends. He's a guy that seems totally without frill or Hollywood appendices, a guy that almost everyone can relate to or at least recognize, and though Coogler certainly sympathizes with Grant — this isn't Crash where the police officers get exculpatory, humanizing storylines — it's not like he's overdramatizing or pointing fingers. This is a tragedy that's made all the more tragic and horrifying because of its ordinariness.
After a birthday dinner for his mother, Grant takes the BART to downtown San Francisco to celebrate New Year's Eve with his friends and girlfriend Sophina. On the way back, an altercation in the claustrophobic train car summons BART cops. Grant and three of his friends are violently held on the platform.
The officer who shot and killed Grant (a man named Johannes Mehserle, who's portrayed in the film by a clean-cut blonde who couldn't look more Anglo if he tried) ultimately served less than a year of jail time. His charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter when he claimed he discharged his firearm thinking it was his taser.
The confrontation in the movie is brutal with tension and discord, and it's all prefaced and prefigured by actual cell-phone footage captured by witnesses on the stopped BART train. That's how Coogler starts the film (with real footage) as if to present the facts objectively before presenting a reenactment of the facts at the film's climax, so we can revisit the violence with context.
Fruitvale Station, then, seems much more about context than the facts of Grant's death. We know that Oscar Grant died, and that he shouldn't have. Coogler wants us to glimpse how Oscar Grant lived. The film opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.