You know from the opening of Fruitvale Station that it is going to end very badly. Based on a true story, it begins with what appears to be cellphone footage of a group of Bay Area transit cops abusing a bunch of young black men, and the scene escalates to the point where one of the men is shot, face down on the floor, in the back. The rest of the film flashes back to follow Oscar Grant III, the 22-year-old victim of this senseless crime, through what turns out to be the last day of his young life. It is impossible to watch without thinking of another unarmed young man who was killed recently, and one of the great strengths of this film is that it humanizes without sugarcoating the victim’s life; it gives a fleshed-out personality to what would otherwise just be another sad statistic.
Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, Red Tails) plays Oscar, a decent young man who has screwed up a lot but is trying to get it together for his daughter and his girlfriend. He’s been in jail. He’s been unfaithful. He’s been involved with drugs. But he’s decided to clean up his act and grow up. He has a loving extended family and a tight group of friends. And he’s wonderful with his little daughter.
What makes the film shine are the performances of the leads. Michael B. Jordan is stellar as Oscar and Octavia Spencer (The Help) is heartbreaking as his mom. I’d never heard of Melonie Diaz who plays his girlfriend, but I will be watching for her in the future. The only casting mistake (or maybe directing mistake) is the too cute kid who plays the daughter. But first time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is at its core a beautifully paced slice of life biopic that takes on an extremely timely social issue without being preachy. No small feat! The way it is structured, with the audience knowing what is going to happen, means you’re constantly wondering what misstep could possibly lead to the tragic outcome you’ve already witnessed. See it, but bring tissues.
P.S. The ending of the movie is very abrupt, which bothered me at the time, but on reflection, it must be what the people who knew Oscar Grant III felt like.