On New Year's Day 2009 at 2:15 a.m. in Oakland, California, Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a police officer in front of numerous witnesses, including some who were taking video on their phones, at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station called Fruitvale. Grant, who was returning home after a night with friends celebrating the holiday, was among a group of men detained by officers after reports of a fight on a train. After a confusing but rapid escalation of events, including the officers striking and cursing a few of the men who were proclaiming their innocence, Grant was shoved face down and shot in the back. He died in the hospital a few hours later, 22 years old. Protests, marches, and even riots took place in the days that followed.
Though it takes its name from the place where Grant's life ended, the new film Fruitvale Station is just as, if not more, concerned with his life leading up to its abrupt, catastrophic conclusion. The film seeks out not the Oscar Grant who was made famous in death but the one who was nameless, but to his family and friends, in life.
The film is a domestic drama, a day in the life of Oscar Grant that just happens to be his last. It starts a little more than 24 hours before the shooting, as Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, The Wire and Friday Night Lights) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, Be Kind Rewind and Raising Victor Vargas), discuss New Year's resolutions. Oscar has had a rocky past, including a stint in prison and, more immediately, sleeping with another woman, and is struggling to prove himself responsible to Sophina and their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He wants to start by not dealing dope anymore. It's a tough call, though, because he has a bag of weed ready to go, and rent is due.
As New Year's Eve progresses, we follow Oscar as he goes about mundane tasks, including taking his daughter to day care and running errands to prepare for a birthday party for his mom, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, Academy Award-winner for The Help). In two sequences more out of the ordinary, Oscar briefly befriends a stray pit bull, and he makes a decision about the drugs and, implicitly, his future.
Bay Area filmmaker Ryan Coogler writes and directs Fruitvale Station, his feature debut. Fruitvale Station is beautiful and haunting: It seemingly effortlessly finds the rhythm of Oscar's life as he balances regrets, hopes, love, and loss. Jordan is extraordinary. After it's over, all you can think about is Oscar alive and what was lost when he was. In contextualizing his life beyond his death, Fruitvale Station achieves some kind of justice for Oscar, artistic rather than judicial but no less real.
Postscript: Due to the timing of the film's release, I couldn't help but think of Trayvon Martin watching the story of Oscar Grant unfold. The impression faded as Fruitvale Station progressed, and, in retrospect, conflating Oscar and Trayvon isn't fair to either, as they each deserve their own meaningful valediction. Nevertheless, I can't shake how Fruitvale Station depicts a piece of the nightmare from which we haven't awakened.
Opens Friday, July 26th