“Fruitvale Station” is an American tragedy, one that’s on the front burner at the moment and that’s never, ever off the back burner, no matter how hard some people may wish it to be otherwise. A dramatized re-creation of the final day on Earth of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), Ryan Coogler’s film opens with evidence of Grant’s actual last moments: a blurry, agitated cellphone video of a San Francisco BART station platform on New Year’s morning 2009, police officers swarming around a group of black men cuffed and seated on the concrete, onlookers shouting at the cops to back off, and then a shot rings out and you hear the collective inhalation of breath as everyone stares right into the pit.
These facts are known: Grant, 22, was pulled off the train with others, suspected of involvement in a brawl. Arguing with the officers, he was forced onto his stomach, whereupon transit officer Johannes Mehserle stood up and shot him in the back. Grant died in the hospital hours later, leaving behind a 4-year-old daughter. Mehserle, who claimed he was reaching for his Taser, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence. Protests and localized rioting followed the shooting and verdict.
Writer-director Coogler could easily have turned “Fruitvale Station” into a work of agitprop — a film to work you into a froth of anger — but he’s after things that are harder to grasp: the measure of a man’s life and the smaller struggles, satisfactions, and injustices that can fill it. The movie’s release couldn’t be more timely, coming as it does after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial has sparked arguments and soul-searching across the spectrum of American society. The real commonality of that discussion and this movie, though, lies in urging us to see the individuals behind the rhetoric — especially those no longer here to tell us who they were.
With a richness of observation and a minimum of melodrama, Coogler and Jordan tell us who Oscar Grant was. The early scenes of “Fruitvale Station” sketch out the web of friends and relatives around him: Sophina (Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and the mother of their child, Tatiana (Ariana Neal); his big-hearted mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer of “The Help”), and Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears) — the keepers of family continuity. We see Oscar drop his daughter off at daycare, sneaking her a snack, and we learn he has lost his job as a supermarket butcher for being late one too many times. We flash back to his prison time for a drug offense and resisting arrest, and we see him struggle with whether to continue “selling trees” — dealing pot — to keep food on the table.
Most of all we see the masks he wears and the many people he has to be: dutiful as a son and grandson, carefully friendly to a white woman (Ahna O’Reilly) in the supermarket, hard and confrontational when crossed by a racist prison inmate (Joey Oglesby) or a cop. We all put on masks as we go through the day, but one of the finer points of “Fruitvale Station” is that the different faces a young, urban African-American man wears tend to be more extreme, more dictated by his experience of what others see when they look at him. Only Sophina and Tatiana arguably get the real Oscar: kind and flawed, scaling the mountain of each day with hope against hope.
We know, of course, that this is his last day, and Coogler lets the mundane events take on a gathering weight. There’s an awful scene involving a stray dog that early on plants seeds of foreboding and fate. “Fruitvale Station” catches the noisy hum of inner-city life but also its moments of quiet and grace, Oscar standing by the bay and letting the immensity of the water calm his nerves. Most precious, there are two scenes of joyous community — a birthday supper for Wanda at which the family’s multiple generations pile in for food, talk, and affection, and the arrival of 2009 itself, Oscar, Sophina and their friends stuck on a BART train until someone pulls out a pair of speakers and everyone on the car — white, black, rich, poor — boogies in the new year.
Of such fragile bliss is life made worthwhile, the movie seems to say. Immediately after, there’s a scene where Oscar and a white, yuppie father-to-be, Peter (Darren Bridgett), wait outside a store while the women use the bathroom; the two men casually bond, and Peter mentions he stole an engagement ring for his wife when he was younger but got a second chance and now runs a successful Web business. The movie doesn’t ask and it doesn’t have to: In similar circumstances, would Oscar have been allowed to bounce back as easily? Would the violently aggressive transit officer played by Kevin Durand have looked at a train car full of New Year’s celebrants and pulled Peter onto the platform?
There are times you sense Coogler’s hand guiding the drama, particularly in the climactic scenes, when it feels like one too many characters from earlier in the film turn up at Fruitvale Station. The temptation to shape is hard to resist. Yet the film’s generally light touch sustains the story through the inevitability and sadness of its final moments, and Jordan never puts a foot wrong — never once stoops to “performance.” “Fruitvale Station” is a movie to leave you weeping with sorrow and fury, not at the killing of a saint but at the death of a young man whose luck was never enough of his own making.