Now that a jury has set Trayvon Martin's killer free in Florida and President Barack Obama has aired his own feelings about the verdict, it's tempting to let the whole media firestorm -- all that uncomfortable talk of racism, violence and the seemingly low value of a black person's life -- fade away. The film "Fruitvale Station" is doing its part to keep the topic alive.
"Fruitvale Station" dramatizes yet another shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Julius Grant III. In the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Grant and several friends were detained by Bay Area Rapid Transit police at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, Calif.; Grant was laid face down and fatally shot by an officer who later claimed he mistook his gun for a Taser. Horrified onlookers took videos -- one of which opens this film -- that went viral and helped spark sometimes violent protests.
To tell this fraught and sorrowful story, writer and first-time feature director Ryan Coogler (a native of Richmond, just north of Oakland) takes a simple approach: He asks us to spend time with the victim. Played with great charm and sensitivity by Michael B. Jordan, Oscar is a womanizing rascal with a stretch in San Quentin behind him, but he wants to go legit to support his girlfriend, Sophina (a very good Melonie Diaz), and their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Some of this narrative feels cliched, but Coogler and his actors make it work by leaning toward understatement. Octavia Spencer, in a potentially weepy role as Oscar's mother, Wanda, strategically saves her tears.
The film's climactic sequence, filmed with BART's cooperation at the Fruitvale Station, is a studiously careful but crackling piece of filmmaking that hews closely to the eyewitness videos but uses dramatic license to build a palpable sense of tension, dread and populist anger. What makes it so harrowing, though, is that we've gotten to know Oscar as a father, son, friend and companion. "Fruitvale Station" never says anything about race or politics. It makes us feel the loss of a person, which is a far more eloquent statement.
PLOT A dramatization of the events surrounding the 2009 shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Julius Grant III, by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif.
RATING R (some violence, language throughout and some drug use)
CAST Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz
BOTTOM LINE No politics, no polemics, just a deceptively simple story about the person behind the statistic. A tremendously moving first-time feature.