A little over three years before Trayvon Martin was killed, and nearly 17 years after the Los Angeles riots, a 22-year-old father in Oakland, Calif., named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by police on the Fruitvale Station train platform near his home. Yes, he was black; yes, he was wearing baggy pants and an oversized shirt; yes, he was a recently paroled ex-con and had been involved in a fistfight on the train; and yes, even though he wasn’t actively resisting the officers, he wasn’t exactly playing nice. “Fruitvale Station” dares to use that incident to make you examine your faith in law enforcement and help you figure out where you sit on the sliding scale of racism. And you’d better believe you’re on there somewhere.
The film opens with grainy cell phone footage of the real Grant’s fatal confrontation with police, hauntingly echoing the infamous video of Rodney King’s beating. The story then flashes back 24 hours and we get to see how Oscar (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) spends his fateful, final day — New Year’s Eve 2008 — and the mundane parts of his life becomes sublime. A trip to a grocery store leads to a pay-it-forward moment of kindness for a stranger. A gas stop leads to a fateful encounter with a stray dog. A simple brushing of teeth with his daughter becomes a reaffirmation of an indelible bond.
This isn’t just about a young black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; it’s a powerful character study about someone trying to move beyond his checkered past and make a new life for himself. His ultimate failure to do so becomes a heartbreakingly honest portrait of the struggles of the 21st-century, African-American male.
Freshman writer/director Ryan Coogler refuses to sanitize Oscar, who is both aggressor and victim. He’s not so much a morally ambiguous character as he is a three-dimensional person. He’s a loving, attentive father, yet he horses around on his baby mama. He loses his job because of incessant tardiness, yet he refuses to return to a life of dealing drugs. You don’t sympathize for him — you empathize with him. Masterfully, Coogler conveys this in a taut script that forsakes telling for showing.
Jordan gives Oscar the thick skin he needs to live in urban California, but fills every inch of his being with a tender heart. His performance is riveting, as he deftly switches from ghetto-speak with his friends to polite conversation with his mother, Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). She believes in her son, but she gives him no quarter — and he respectfully obeys her without becoming a mama’s boy.
It usually takes a tragedy to initiate the types of conversations that make us look at the unsavory aspects like racism, sexism and homophobia. But it’s only through acknowledging these aspects of humanity that change can be affected. It’s too late for Grant, Martin, Matthew Shepard and any number of people who have violently died out of human ignorance or hatred; but this all we get, folks. Let’s see if we can get along, shall we?