“Fruitvale Station” begins with the saddest and most chilling opening sequence in recent memory, almost scarier than anything I saw in “The Conjuring”: real cell-phone video of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, being shot and killed by a local police officer.
The film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who was living in the Bay Area when Oscar was murdered, recounts the final 24 hours of Grant’s life. Grant, played by the brilliant young actor Michael B. Jordan (“The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Chronicle”) is no saint; he cheats on his girlfriend, Sophina (played by the equally stellar Melonie Diaz), he lies all-too-easily, he sells drugs, and he’s in and out of prison all the time, much to the chagrin of his mother (Octavia Spencer).
But Grant is actually a good person at heart. He spends his last day trying to get his old grocery store job back, trying to stop selling drugs, trying to be better, trying, trying, trying. He knows he has to change his ways. And he genuinely loves the women in his life, including his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Jordan perfectly portrays Grant as a flawed but good-hearted human being, a mess of contradictions, and his own worst enemy.
And that’s where the film’s strength comes from. Yes, the Oscar Grant tragedy is very similar to Trayvon Martin’s, and yes, they’re both examples of the unfortunately still-struggling race relations in America. But Coogler smartly doesn’t make any overreaching statements on race and violence; he only focuses on the human drama at the center of the story. Oscar –and Trayvon– is more than just a symbol. He was somebody’s son. Oscar had a little girl. Now she has to grow up without her father. That, ultimately, is the real tragedy.
Thanks to Coogler’s script and the terrific performances from the film’s three leads, all of the characters on screen feel like real, flesh-and-blood human beings, which makes the inevitable tragedy much more powerful and heartbreaking. Coogler also manages to steer away from melodrama, for the most part. Only one scene, where Oscar mourns over a dead dog, feels a bit too manufactured and pat.
Coogler has made a fantastic, heartbreaking debut and an incredible showcase for Michael B. Jordan. It’s a flawed character study of a flawed human being, and one of the elite, vital films of 2013.