In the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was detained by transit police on a train platform in Oakland. Before anyone knew what was happening, an officer had shot and killed him. Grant hadn’t done anything wrong (except defend himself in an alleged fight on the train). His murder was a tragedy — and part of what was sickening was the way it reverberated alongside other killings of young African-Americans by trigger-happy law enforcers over the decades. The media, reporting on events like this one, have only fostered numbness where the outrage should be. But Ryan Coogler, the extraordinary first-time writer-director of Fruitvale Station, does more than just burn through the numbness. He puts us in touch with the full, wrenching humanity — the moral horror — of the crime as if we were seeing it for the first time.
Coogler’s simple, powerful strategy is to dramatize Grant’s life during the 24 hours leading up to his death. After showing cell-phone video of the actual murder, he draws his camera in close to Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as a flawed, complex ex-convict who fools around on his partner (Melonie Diaz) but loves her tenderly; sells drugs but is trying, with half a heart, to go straight; and is a good daddy to his daughter. Jordan’s performance is grippingly subtle: He shows us the despair that’s ruling Oscar, the street ‘tude he puts on like armor, and the joy that comes out only when he’s at the home of his mother (Octavia Spencer). Coogler immerses us in this life, so that when it’s cut short, you won’t just weep, you’ll cry out in protest. Fruitvale Station is great political filmmaking because it’s great filmmaking, period. A