"Fruitvale Station" is a movie as direct and devastating as a point-blank bullet to the back, like the one that killed Oscar Grant on the first morning of a new year, 2009. Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American, was headed home with friends when they were detained by Oakland transit cops, responding to reports of a fight on a train.
Gun goes off, Oscar's mortally wounded. The shooter -- a white officer claiming he intended to use a Taser and mistakenly grabbed his pistol -- gets two years for involuntary manslaughter, serving half of that sentence. Several witnesses capture the shooting on cellphone cameras, and within days millions view the footage.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler's remarkably assured filmmaking debut begins with that raw footage, so we know Oscar's fate. Then he rewinds 26 hours to exemplify who this young man was, and it's a compelling bundle of contradictions played by Michael B. Jordan, who can get his tuxedo pressed for awards season. The first time we hear his voice, Oscar's making resolutions he'll never keep. Unavoidable tragedy to come makes Oscar's every move count, in heartache or hindsight consolation.
Oscar awakens on New Year's Eve with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their preschool daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). It's his mother's birthday, another reason to be happy, if Sophina wouldn't hassle him about a fling with another woman. Oscar has that kind of duality about him: a loving partner who'll cheat, a Chuck E. Cheese dad who'll pay the tab with money made by half-heartedly dealing pot. Even his mother (Octavia Spencer) gives Oscar a tough-love turn-away in prison, one of Coogler's shrewd flashbacks.
We observe a life over a day, not that different where it counts from us or people we know. A life flawed by a cloak of street-itude that Jordan playing Oscar slips on and off like silk. The ache is in the domestic details Coogler provides, how those transit officers aren't the first to jump to conclusions about Oscar's motives. A father clowning with his child. The joyous din of a family kitchen. Life before death.
Then the shooting, a gut-wrenching sequence matching eyewitness cameras for effect, and an ER vigil led by Spencer's magnificent sorrow and strength, urging Oscar's loved ones to "lift him up." Public outcry and the shooter's justice (or lack thereof) are left to end notes rather than the heated rhetoric a less confident filmmaker might employ.
"Fruitvale Station" is lean -- barely 80 minutes -- but Coogler's intentions aren't mean. Vengeance is someone else's, while this movie finds justice in making an unnecessary victim human, not just a statistic or cause. In a sobering coincidence,
Coogler's movie arrives at a time when Trayvon Martin is the latest Oscar Grant, who was the latest Amadou Diallo, who was the latest Rodney King. Lift us up.
"Fruitvale Station" is rated R for profanity, drug content, brief violence.
3 and 1/2 stars
FRUITVALE STATION (R). Directed and written by Ryan Coogler. At Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington). 1 hour 24 minutes
WITH: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray