Here’s a gut-wrenching, emotional powerhouse of a film, politically and socially resonant while also standing on its own as a compelling and often-heartbreaking story. It’s “Fruitvale Station,” and it’s the best American film of the year to date.
The movie, directed by 27-year-old first-timer Ryan Coogler, is a slice-of-life look at the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man gunned down by police on the BART train platform on New Years Day 2009. Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan- known to Wire fans as Wallace, Friday Night Lights fans as Vince, and Parenthood fans as Alex- in an amazing, multifaceted performance that’s very much worthy of considerable Awards attention.
We see Grant going about his day, preparing to celebrate his mother’s birthday, spending time with his girlfriend and young daughter, and making plans to celebrate the New Year in San Francisco, leading up to the shocking violence.
There are all kinds of moments here that are just gut-punches, and I’m not only talking about the ending. We see Oscar say goodbye to characters when we know it will be the last time, and we see his mother suggest that he take the train instead of drive. But there are other moments, having nothing to do with Grant’s death, that just feel real, like something that happen in cities. Like a bunch of characters goofing with other on the train, or making small talk outside a store.
Great as Jordan is, there are some pretty strong supporting performances too. Grant’s mother is Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for “The Help” and here gives an even more impressive performance in a film that’s much less problematic. Melonie Diaz -from “Raising Victor Vargas”- is also excellent as the girlfriend, while Lost actor Kevin Durand, in only a few minutes of screen time, conveys both menace and anguish as the cop who shoots Grant. (Also on hand is old WB heartthrob Chad Michael Murray as another cop.)
The film, to its great credit, depicts Grant as a multidimensional human being, without trying to make him into an angel or a saint. It acknowledges his temper, and his past of drug-dealing, prison time and infidelity- but also shows him as a bright man who cared deeply for his girlfriend, daughter, mother and friends- one who, it should go without saying, did not deserve to be shot dead on a subway platform.
The echoes here of the Trayvon Martin case, of course, are obvious, but the Grant case may be even more maddening- he was shot in the back by a police officer, while lying on his stomach handcuffed, and the shooting took place in front of dozens of witnesses, including some who filmed it. However, the policeman who shot Grant- who claimed that he had confused his taser with a gun- was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years.
The Grant case, for whatever reason, got a lot less media attention than the Martin one, at least outside of the Bay Area, which I would attribute more to the arbitrary nonsense of the news business than any other more nefarious motive. Expect this movie to change that.
Of course, that didn’t stop some of the worst among us from describing Grant as a “thug” and implying- and sometimes more than implying- that he probably would’ve shot someone or gotten shot himself anyway, so why feel bad about what happened? It’s the same poisonous, borderline-sociopathic attitude which assumes that because a 17-year-old had smoked pot, used Twitter badly and been suspended from school, that he deserved violent death.
Even if it weren’t arriving mere days after the Zimmerman verdict, “Fruitvale Station” will make you angry, and it will make you cry. But it’s not manipulative and it’s not exploitative. It’s just a flat-out great film.