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article imageReview: 'Fruitvale Station' a balanced, powerful look at Grant tragedy Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 25, 2013 in Entertainment
It would have been so easy to make this movie preachy, or sentimental, or one-note. But writer-director Ryan Coogler boldly sidesteps these traps in his debut, “Fruitvale Station” – a raw, moving depiction of Oscar Grant's last day alive.
Grant was the young African American man who was shot and killed by a white policeman during a scuffle in Oakland during the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. He and his friends were on a commuter train, returning home from New Year's Eve celebrations in San Francisco, when police pulled him and several other men from the train and held them on the Fruitvale platform after reports of a fight. Grant's killer, transit officer Johannes Mehserle, claimed that he had mistaken his gun for his taser; he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
A film about this tragedy would seem as relevant and inevitable as ever in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal – and in an America where issues of racial tension and gun violence never go away. But what puts Fruitvale Station above most movies of its kind is the way it refuses to make Grant a saint or a martyr, or to force solemn meaning onto the murder. It reveals the incident for what it was: a random, senseless and pointless killing. If it weren't for the opening shot – the actual cell-phone footage of Grant's detainment, moments before the shooting – you'd have almost no sense that the movie was even going there.
As played by Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Grant is a man with a mix of foibles and blessings. He genuinely loves his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter, but he's terrible at providing for them. He delays telling his mother (Octavia Spencer) and Sophina that he was fired from his retail job for two weeks – fired for constant tardiness. As we get to know him, we also learn that he has a history of drug-dealing and cheating, and we see a few frightening flashes of temper. But we also see many moments of playfulness and compassion – particularly during a harrowing scene when he attempts to rescue a dog struck down by a car. Toughness and sensitivity sit side by side.
And that's what makes the story seem all the more tragic: it's a real, multi-sided human being who's destroyed in the end, not just a name in a news story, or a symbol, or a hero. Coogler's script doesn't follow a plot or a clear through-line; it just tags along with Oscar on that fatal New Year's Eve Day as he plays with his daughter, buys a birthday card for his mother, flirts with a girl at the supermarket, has dinner with his family and both argues and spends time with his girlfriend. There are a couple of moments when foreshadowing is laid on a little thick (such as when Oscar's daughter mistakes outside fireworks for gunshots and then asks him if he'll be all right when he goes out), but there's no foreboding sense of doom or danger.
Jordan plays Oscar with a kind of effortless charm that makes you like him even when he's at his most lazy or dishonest; he makes you see yourself in the guy, which goes a long way towards the movie's success. Acting kudos are especially due to Diaz as Sophina, whose mix of adoration of and frustration with Oscar is utterly real and convincing, and to Spencer, a pillar of strength and restraint in the movie's climax.
Coogler won two major awards at the Sundance festival (and one at Cannes) for this film, and it's easy to see why. He approaches this material with the right style of detached observation, with the quiet confidence of a veteran. The tragic climax is wrought with emotion and heartbreak, but it's never cloying. Coogler creates empathy for his subjects without resorting to blatant manipulation. Fruitvale Station – which gets wide release across North America tomorrow – is an impressive first film that works as a worthy, honest tribute to the real Grant.
In the end, this movie isn't about racism, or politics, or even urban violence. It's about the many facets of a human being – and what we lose when that human being is suddenly gone.
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