In the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, on a platform of Oakland's Fruitvale BART Station, a young man named Oscar Grant III was shot in the back by a 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. Debut filmmaker Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station
, a fictionalized account of the last day of Grant's life, is a prologue to that horrifying encounter, 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. 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.