There’s something tidy and a little reductive about Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant. For those without a photographic recall of recent news events, Grant was the unarmed, 22-year-old Oakland man who, on the morning of January 1, 2009, was shot and killed by a police officer of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The event made international headlines, in no small part because it was captured from multiple angles by several phone cameras. Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, looks past the media frenzy to the life of the victim, portraying him as an ordinary man with friends and family who loved him. No offense to the filmmakers, but wasn’t that clear to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the case? Putting a human face on a public tragedy that already had a human face, Fruitvale Station plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with little more to say on its subject than “what a shame this bad thing happened.”
After a prologue consisting of either real cell phone footage of the incident or an uncanny replication of same—it’s tough to say which—writer-director Ryan Coogler rewinds to the previous morning. With the exception of a prison-set flashback, the movie unfolds over the course of a single day, as Grant (Chronicle’s Michael B. Jordan) runs errands, visits his mother (Octavia Spencer), and hangs with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and 4-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal). There’s a kind of neo-neorealist quality to some of these scenes; Coogler, who shot on location in the Bay Area, has a feel for the textures of the city. He’s also clearly done his homework, though there are a few anecdotes that seem suspiciously imagined. Given, for example, that there are no witnesses and he’s never shown telling another living soul about it, should viewers assume that Grant’s heavily symbolic encounter with a dying dog is pure screenwriting invention? That’s one of several moments that also flirts with lionizing the deceased— an agenda completely removed from Jordan's performance. He is, unquestionably, the film’s greatest asset. Never once playing Grant as a martyr or a saint, even when the script seems to be leaning in that direction, the actor relocates some of the gravity of his devastating arc on The Wire. Inexorably, fatalistically, his character hurdles towards his grim destiny.
After a quasi-aimless hour and change, the incident finally arrives, and it’s as harrowing as it should be. (Cosmopolis’ Kevin Durand plays the superior officer on the scene, striking the proper balance between brute-force menace and frayed-nerve confusion.) Yet once the sequence has come and gone, all that’s left is tears and vigils; the responses to Grant’s death—the protests and riots, as well as the serious discussions of race it provoked—are left out entirely. Well intentioned and reasonably well constructed, Fruitvale Station seems to exist for the sole purpose of making what should be an obvious point: Oscar Grant didn’t deserve to die, and the officer who shot him in the back had no right to do so. If America needs a movie to make that much clear, God help us.