Opens Fri., July 26 at Guild 45th, Meridian, and other theaters. Rated R. 90 minutes.
By an accident of timing, if not craft, Ryan Coogler has made one of the most important movies of the year. He couldn’t have known, in dramatizing a 2009 police shooting in Oakland, that a Florida teen would be slain in a similar 2012 encounter. Then came this month’s not-guilty verdict, and his film will forever be associated with the case of Trayvon Martin.
Try to put that out of your mind. It’s impossible, but Fruitvale Station is about another dead black youth, Oscar Grant. Less covered by the national media, in part because Grant had a criminal record, his killing was actually witnessed and filmed on cellphones by New Year’s revelers on the same BART train from which he was dragged by overzealous transit cops. Fruitvale Station leads up to that incident with a day-in-the-life format. It’s overly sentimental and possibly too soft on its protagonist (played by Michael B. Jordan), who goes out of his way to do favors for everyone he encounters during the final 24 hours of his life. He’s respectful of his mother (The Help’s Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer), kind to dogs, loving to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and 5-year-old daughter. Fired from his grocery-store job, trying to leave the thug life behind, he dumps a bag of weed in the harbor for maximum remorseful effect. There are flashes of temper, but Oscar is depicted as a man determined to turn over a new leaf—just when the economy is at its worst. (We see an Obama campaign sticker, but hope hasn’t yet come to Oakland.)
In his first feature, Coogler takes a quieter, more domestic approach than the last major American film about race and police brutality, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Though the Grant family’s constant “Love you”s portend disaster, what really sticks is Oscar’s sheer normalcy of routine—buying crab for his mom’s birthday party, helping a white female shopper prepare for a barbecue, racing his daughter back to the car after day-care. Yes, it is possible in America to be a petty drug dealer and an upstanding family man. After showing us the actual cellphone video before the credits, Coogler spends a relaxed hour humanizing the 22-year-old Oscar; then comes the grim rush of docudrama that loops us back to the fateful railway platform.
Because of the cellphone videos and court transcripts, the cycle of white police escalation and minority defiance seems terribly familiar. Oscar and his boisterous friends protest they were doing nothing wrong, and they’re humiliated by sitting on the concrete in full view of the celebratory train riders. (In a fictional grace note, Coogler makes the BART a joyous and integrated rolling house party—society as we’d like it to be, not as it is.) Tempers flare, heated words are spoken, and a cop reaches for his Taser during the scuffle. His trial is covered in a postscript that also extends forward to the present year and context. And about all those cellphone videos. Part of Fruitvale Station’s horrible power comes from the fact that, yes, we’ve seen this movie before.