The comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case will be inevitable, but a discussion of Fruitvale Station should include questions such as how we measure the meaning of a life: How it is lived and how it is valued. Directed with astonishing assuredness by Ryan Coogler, the movie retraces the final day of Oscar Grant III, the young man shot and killed by a San Francisco BART cop on New Year’s Eve 2008. The shooting, which was captured on cell phones by several bystanders and subsequently posted online, was shocking and enraging. The cop who fired the gun, claiming he thought he was using his Taser, subsequently was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent time in prison. Fruitvale Station isn’t a movie about the shooting, or even why it happened; it is instead a day in the life.
No one knows the day and hour of our demise, but it’s safe to say that in most cases, when we draw that last breath, we’ll be doing something mundane like reading this paper, folding laundry, or mowing the lawn. Eloquent last words and important expressions to loved ones of wishes and desires are pretty much the stuff of drama and literature. So it’s not surprising that Oscar Grant’s final 24 hours are spent doing very ordinary things. He quarrels with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) over his inability to hold a job to support the family. He walks his beloved daughter Tatiana to day care. He meets up with his friends, has casual conversations with strangers, and helps prepare for his mother Wanda’s (Octavia L Spencer) birthday celebration later that night. It’s clear that Oscar is quite charming and able to win over anybody, but it’s also clear that he’s unfocused and prone to making the wrong choices which, in the past, landed him in prison for drug dealing. As the new year approaches, Oscar seems hopeful that he can get his act together and be the man of the family.
The scenes leading up to the shooting show Oscar, Sophina and their friends reveling on the streets of San Francisco before embarking on the train home. They and other commuters of all ethnicities gamely celebrate through rail delays before Oscar gets in an altercation with his former prison nemesis. Enter the cops, trying to restore order, but failing miserably. Coogler gives the viewer a sense of chaos underscored by the grim fact that we know how this will end. If the movie has one fault, it is its depiction of the cop as a crazed, irrational zealot. Whereas we have had the advantage of seeing Grant through 24 hours, to the point where he’s not just another soon-to-be-dead black man, all we are given about his killer is something out of a left-wing depiction of the abuse of white authority in a police state.
The movie belongs squarely to Michael B. Jordan. His sweet and elastic facial features humanize Oscar, even while he fearlessly shows us his character’s less-than-perfect traits. There is a great moment, seen in flashback, in which Wanda visits Oscar in prison. The visit starts positively, but devolves quickly when Wanda realizes that Oscar, who is confronting an inmate who has disrespected her, hasn’t matured to the point where he is capable of leading a productive life. She storms out, tearfully ignoring his pleas to give him one more hug. Later, as she views his dead body on a slab, those words, and the realization that she will never again embrace her child, are like a sucker punch, delivered by Spencer’s haunting performance, giving us a jolt to our own guts. Fruitvale Station is one of the most powerful movies to have come out of Hollywood in years, both in its ability to brilliantly, yet simply, tell a compelling story while at the same time forcing us to look hard at our own belief systems and the value of our lives.