Fruitvale Station opens with a cellphone video, one of many shot in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009 and later posted online. We see a group of young men sitting against a wall at a subway platform in Oakland, Calif. Uniformed officers are interrogating them in a threatening manner. When one tries to stand up, he is forcibly pushed to the ground face down, his hands behind his back, a policeman’s knee crushing his head. The shouts of outraged onlookers grow louder, complaining about excessive force. Then another officer suddenly draws his gun and shoots the helpless man in the back. The crowd’s anger instantly turns into horrified shock. They can’t believe what they’ve just seen. And neither can you.
From there, writer-director Ryan Coogler turns back the clock 24 hours to reenact the last day in the life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan). He argues with his live-in girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) about his womanizing and promises never to do it again. He dotes on his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), whom he adores. He tries to get his job back at the grocery store where he was fired two weeks ago for being late, but the boss tells him he’s already hired a replacement. His sister calls, asking him if he can help her with the rent, because she’s working double shifts and is still short. He considers selling marijuana for some quick cash but dumps the weed into the ocean after remembering what life was like in prison. He visits his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) to celebrate her birthday. He runs various errands.
And because you know what’s coming and that this is the last day of his life, everything Oscar does, no matter how ordinary, takes on incredible gravity. In his first film, Coogler, who is only 27, takes a neorealist approach to the story, using mundane details to illuminate the inner lives of his characters. Although the shooting resulted in riots in the Oakland area, the movie is compassionate and mournful instead of angry or fiery. Whatever role prejudice have played a part in the shooting — Oscar and his friends were black, and the officers were white — Fruitvale Station refuses to turn the incident into a statement on race and divisiveness. The director goes out of his way to show Oscar interacting with white strangers in two long scenes, avoiding the sort of inflammatory cliches common in lame-brained movies such as Crash.
The performances are superb. Jordan ( The Wire, Friday Night Lights) convincingly captures all the facets of Oscar, a complicated man who was equally comfortable defending himself in prison as he was spending time with his family. Diaz ( Raising Victor Vargas) makes a perfect foil as his girlfriend, allowing you to see why she stayed with Oscar despite his repeated troubles: His nobility and innate goodness outweighed his flaws.
And Spencer elevates the film with her portrayal of Oscar’s mother, a woman capable of doling out the toughest kind of love when her son he veered toward a life of crime, but was also there to help him when he needed her. She’s the one who suggested Oscar and Sophina take the Bay Area Rapid Transit train into San Francisco to watch the fireworks that night, worried that they would probably be drinking too much to drive home. The irony is enormous.
Coogler occasionally overplays his hand: The scene in which Oscar says goodbye to his daughter for what we know will be the last time is prolonged to the point of overkill, and there’s a slow-motion flashback late in the film that feels like a hammer pounding on your head. But the lasting impression Fruitvale Station leaves you with is of a young black man’s imperfect life that acknowledges, then transcends all cultural and racial stereotypes — a life that was tragically cut too short.