Although it debuted six months ago during the Sundance Film Festival, “Fruitvale Station” arrives in Memphis with the immediacy of a news dispatch and the urgency of a tent-revival sermon. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, this compassionate portrayal of the last day in the life of a 22-year-old black man reclaims the humanity of victims transformed into political symbols. In doing so, it provides context for much of black America’s distrust of the justice system, a distrust that dismays those who think it was the news media and not George Zimmerman’s bullet that “injected race” into the Martin killing.
The Zimmerman jurors may have returned the only logical verdict available to them, given the evidence and instructions presented at the trial, but at the same time they delivered a potent affirmation that young black men are considered inherently suspicious and as expendable and superfluous as roadkill. As if in prophetic response, “Fruitvale Station” sheds the hooded sweatshirt of demonizing caricature to deliver a full if sympathetic dramatized portrait of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Oakland man shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer shortly after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day 2009, while he was returning from a San Francisco fireworks display. Grant was lying face down when he was killed by officer Johannes Mehserle; the officer said he thought he was holding his Taser when he discharged his pistol. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence in Los Angeles County Jail.
One major difference in the summary death sentences of the Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant cases is that Grant was killed in front of numerous witnesses, many of whom captured the event on cell phone cameras. Debuting writer-director Ryan Coogler, 27, a native of Oakland, opens “Fruitvale Station” with a clip from one of those cameras before taking us into his depiction of Grant’s final hours, with Michael B. Jordan of “The Wire” as the doomed young man.
Based on fact but with much imagined incident, “Fruitvale Station” presents Grant as a conflicted figure on the verge of a better, more responsible life. “I want to start over,” he says, in one of many moments limned with tragic irony, given our awareness of his fate. (Oscar’s loving mother is the one who insists he take the train to San Francisco, on the theory that public transportation is safer than driving.)
As seen here, Grant has a young daughter (Ariana Neal) he desperately loves, and he is committed to the girl’s mother (Melonie Diaz). He is a charmer and a dissembler with a prison record; he also is recently unemployed, having been fired from a grocery store job for habitual lateness. He begins the movie as a dope dealer, but before the sun sets, he has dumped his marijuana and become determined to regain legitimate employment. An incident at a gas station reveals he is kind to animals, although his kindness proves irrelevant. If this saintly trajectory makes Grant’s story into something of an allegory of martyrdom, Coogler and Jordan insist on the man’s authenticity, which they convey through his warmth and humor, his short temper and his self-deluding optimism; the Oakland locations, meanwhile, keep the character embedded in reality. Coogler obviously knows this environment and its people, and the movie’s family scenes — Octavia Spencer of “The Help” is Oscar’s mother — are believably warm and chaotic, and rich in distinctive, convincing detail. The child of a community organizer and a probation officer, Coogler — who worked for several years as a youth counselor in San Francisco — presents the tragic arc of this narrative in a straightforward, non-exploitative manner, but he refuses to keep his material at an intellectual distance; he doesn’t end the film with a fade-out or cut to black at the transit station but takes us to the hospital, to the mother’s prayer circle in the waiting room. We know what’s coming, but when the bad news arrives, the impact is devastating.