In the early morning of January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by the BART police at the Fruitvale station in Oakland California. The picture opens with actual cell-phone video of the killing taken by a bystander. It’s a compelling start to a story that I am very familiar with living in the Bay Area. What happens in the 24 hours leading up to that fateful encounter, is the subject of this heartbreaking chronicle.
First time director Ryan Coogler’s film is important because it upholds that an innocent life is something to hold sacred. On the surface Oscar was nothing special. He was just an ordinary man. Actually some could even contend he was much worse. Not an exemplary member of society, we see him as a liar, a cheater, a drug dealer, unemployed and as an ex-con. He also has a wife, a daughter and a mother – all of whom he loves dearly. Actor Michael B. Jordan does a good job at portraying Oscar Grant. We are drawn to him despite the fact that he is flawed. He is human. You care for this man. That is what makes the drama so effective. His loving relationship with his daughter (Ariana Neal), girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz), and mother (Octavia Spencer) help humanize a man that might be viewed as merely a criminal at first glance.
Knowing how this ends actually gives weight to these dramatized events. When his mother encourages him to take the train because it’s safer than driving in traffic, the conversation resonates more. We get a glimpse of a passing BART train in the background one moment and the image is particularly haunting. Occasionally, director Coogler pushes too far. A scene where Oscar bonds with a well-to-do white man on New Year’s Eve feels like massaging the audience. See he likes white people! None of that is necessary because the ultimate message of injustice is unmistakable. Coogler shows that it’s not required for Oscar to have been a paragon of virtue for his life to have value. The point is that he had a right to live.
What went down in the East Bay Area early morning New Years Day in 2009 should have never occurred. Fruitvale Station covers a life needlessly destroyed by the people entrusted to protect it. The system failed. Through the course of one day we get a snapshot of Oscar Grant. The events, as presented here, will inspire anger, frustration but mostly sadness over a spirit recklessly taken away. Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s drama does not set out to deify this man. Oscar isn’t a saint, but he certainly isn’t a monster either. What keeps coming through each vignette is that he was human. His existence had purpose because he had a soul. In Coogler’s small-scale portrait, we get the presentation of an individual unfulfilled. A powerful film about an American tragedy.