Early in the morning on New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old man named Oscar Grant, on his way home with his girlfriend, was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop while at the Fruitvale BART stop in Oakland. The incident was captured by dozens of commuters on a stopped train, and the footage, seen below, became a flashpoint in the ongoing conflict between law enforcement and minorities. (Warning: The footage isn't graphic, but it is disturbing.)
The film Fruitvale Station opens with that exact video, and it quite obviously hangs over every scene in the movie. We follow Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, The Wire), as he goes about his day leading up to the fateful events at the train station. He visits his girlfriend and their daughter; he almost sells some weed but doesn't; he tries to get his old job at a deli back; he reflects on a short prison stint; he visits his mother (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday; he even pauses to help a dying dog off the street. In its script the day is like any other. But writer-director Ryan Coogler infuses Grant's travels with a quotidian menace. Grant's life, and the lives of many like him, can spin out of control if just one thing goes wrong. What happened to Grant was a horrible accident, Coogler argues, but not that accidental.
The movie stacks the deck a little bit, fudging some facts and inventing some characters for maximum dramatic heft—a nice woman Grant helps out and flirts with during the day turns out to be on the station platform, for example—which is a problem only if you are pedantic and chilly anyway. This is a movie about a tragedy, a pointless, stupid tragedy, and it wants to wring every emotion from it. This is not a subtle film but it is a deeply earnest one: It wants you to feel just how much was lost.
The primary reason Fruitvale Station is so affecting is Jordan, who turns from plaintive to giddy to menacing to scared without missing a beat; he makes sure Grant is not simply a symbol but a person. (There's a scene when Jordan's mother visits him in prison in which Jordan is breathtaking; he shifts gears, like, seven times in seven seconds.) Jordan's Grant is a confused, sometimes troubled kid, but one who's always good-hearted, always trying, almost getting it together. You can feel the squandered potential. It's a devastating performance. Spencer has the requisite grieving mother role, but boy does she hit it out of the park; she'll knock you over.
Then you have the train-station scene itself, the big closing setpiece. Coogler's smartest move is to start it out with something wonderful, an impromptu dance party on the crowded train, which isn't realistic—people don't like to look at other people on trains, let alone dance with them—but feels spontaneous and right. And it just punctuates even harder what happens next. The scene is staged with the right amount of confusion; there's still some debate as to exactly what happened—the officer who shot Grant claimed he meant to grab his taser; the courts ultimately agreed—and Coogler is able to step back for a moment and show us just how scared everyone looks, including the arriving police officers. (The scene is chaos, madness, exactly the type of situation that would lead to a deadly mistake.)
And at the end, there is Oscar Grant, a sweet kid trying to overcome some dumb decisions, and getting closer, with a family that loves him and might have gotten him there. What happened to him was a fucking tragedy, and Fruitvale Station drives that home in the most powerful way. It's not a perfect movie. But you will cry your eyes out anyway.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.