When Oscar Grant woke up on Dec. 31, 2008, he did not know that by the end of the night, he would become a rallying symbol for police brutality and racial tensions.
That's because when Grant woke up that morning, he didn't know he would be shot in the back – while unarmed and restrained – by a BART officer at an Oakland, Calif. train station. New Year's Eve revelers looking on from the train recorded the encounter with their cell phones, turning it into a viral Internet video which then escalated into an international story. This grainy cell phone footage begins "Fruitvale Station," a film that re-imagines (with ample research) that day in Grant's life, turning a victim into a human and a crime into a tragedy.
"Fruitvale Station," directed and written by Ryan Coogler, follows Oscar – a 22-year-old African-American – on the day he dies. We watch him make decisions: some good, some bad, some meaningless and some fatal. Set against the neighborhoods of Oakland (Coogler is a Bay Area native), we learn not just what it means to be a young, black man in America, but what it means to be this young, black man in America.
Oscar drops his daughter off at school, buys his mom a birthday card, argues with his girlfriend, begs a former employer for his job back and fills his car with gas. We get to know not just Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), but those who loved him: his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), who despite all her misgivings won't give up on him; his mother (Octavia Spencer), whose blend of compassion and tough love bring out the best in all around her; and his four-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal), who captures the purest of Oscar's devotion.
As the day goes on, dread grows as the hours lurch toward that titular moment. The scene, filmed at the actual BART station, is intricately re-enacted. Even though the opening footage makes it clear what's coming, the lethal climax is no less intense.
Throughout the film, Coogler carries the character of Oscar with a tender but restrained hand, choosing small moments – like a footrace with his daughter or an exchange with a fellow grocery store customer – rather than grand gestures in order to earn our affection. This is no definitive statement on race. Instead, Coogler sprinkles his film with little jokes and observations, with many that speak to both the good and bad in people.
Oscar is kind and well-intentioned, a doting father and son. But Jordan also lets Oscar's reckless tendencies and irresponsibility peak through his outward benevolence. Though Jordan had memorable roles in "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," his performance in "Fruitvale Station" is surely a break-out for the 25-year-old actor.
As Oscar's girlfriend Sophina, Diaz – also a newcomer – is both audacious and grounded as she pushes Oscar to be a better father and person. Spencer is wonderful, embodying the spectrum of emotions – love, devotion, disappointment, sadness – a mother feels for her child. Even Neal is enthralling as Oscar's adorable and rapturous daughter.
It's easy, particularly with the heightened racial atmosphere in the country at the moment, to argue Coogler bathes his Oscar in too glowing of a light. The real-life Grant's reported jail sentence, drug dealing and infidelity are included, but framed as opportunities for redemption.
Nevertheless, Coogler rounds out his Oscar in more nuanced ways. He shows us Oscar's anger, cowardice and dishonesty alongside the compassion, generosity and humor. But in all its subtlety, the message in Coogler's debut film is clear and effective: Oscar should have had a Jan. 1, 2009 – another day to decide his future.