In the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, on a platform of Oakland's Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit Station, a young man named Oscar Grant III was shot in the back by a BART transit officer. The officer later claimed that he meant to reach for his Taser and not his revolver, but his mistake was fatal: Grant, who was unarmed and restrained at the time of the shooting, died later at a local hospital.
The events leading up to his death rapidly took on a life of their own. Bystanders captured the shooting on their cell phones. Who knows, exactly, what motivated them? Curiosity about an arrest, a dramatic event by itself? Or the sense of watchful unease that plenty of urban citizens feel when they see law enforcement officers approach African Americans or other people of color? Whatever impulses drove them, the images they captured were the best kind of citizen reporting; by recording evidence of a world gone wrong, they'd taken a step toward somehow setting it right.
Debut filmmaker Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, a fictionalized account of the last day of Grant's life, is a prologue to those horrifying images, a restrained but forceful picture that captures some of the texture and detail of one human life. Michael B. Jordan of Friday Night Lights plays Oscar, a young man who's done jail time but who seems eager to get on the right track, not just for his own sake but for that of his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). Coogler dramatizes Oscar's last day by choosing not to dramatize it: The events unfold casually, without any particular scheme. And yet because we know how this story will end, there's a shivery, understated tension running beneath.
Oscar has just lost his job at a grocery store; he stops by to pick up some fish for his mother's birthday party that evening — she's played, wonderfully, by Octavia Spencer, showing us a no-nonsense mom who loves her son but senses that his place in the world is tentative. While Oscar is waiting for his order to be wrapped, he strikes up a conversation with a young woman who doesn't face the same sorts of problems he does — essentially, she's white and has money. She's promised her New Year's Eve date that she'll make him a fried-fish dinner with no idea how to do it. Grant shows a flicker of amusement at her cluelessness — and then he calls his grandmother, passing the phone along to the fish-fry novice so she can get advice direct from an expert.
That, Coogler seems to be telling us, is just the kind of guy Oscar was. He also uses flashbacks to give us some sense of Oscar's time in prison, and suggests that his subject could be evasive, if not downright dishonest, with his loved ones. The idea isn't to turn Oscar Grant into a martyr; it's simply to shrink the distance between him and us, and Coogler's approach works. Fruitvale Station is intimate in the best way, thanks largely to Jordan's deft, responsive performance. Oscar's last day is filled, as most peoples' days are, not with big decisions but with small choices. If only he'd done Y and not Z, would he be alive today? Fruitvale Station doesn't trade in those kinds of equations. Instead, by detailing Oscar Grant's last hours, it suggests that his choices had very little to do with the way he died. But they had everything to do with the way he lived.