In the wee hours of January 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was detained by transit police on a train platform in Oakland, California. Before anyone knew what was happening, an officer had shot and killed him. Grant hadn't done anything wrong, except defend himself in a fight on the train.
Grant's murder was a tragedy, and part of what was sickening was the way it reverberated alongside other killings of young African-Americans by trigger-happy law enforcers over the decades. The media, reporting on events like this one, have only fostered numbness where the outrage should be.
But Ryan Coogler, the extraordinary first-time writer-director of "Fruitvale Station," does more than just burn through the numbness. He puts us in touch with the full, wrenching humanity and the moral horror of a crime like this as if we were seeing it for the first time.
In "Fruitvale Station," Coogler's simple and powerful strategy is to dramatize Grant’s life during the 24 hours leading up to his death. After showing cellphone video of the actual murder, he draws his camera in close to Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, of "Chronicle" and "The Wire."
The man who emerges is a fascinatingly flawed and complex ex-convict who fools around on his partner, played by Melonie Diaz, but loves her tenderly; sells marijuana but is trying, with half a heart, to go straight; and is a good daddy to his daughter. Jordan's performance is grippingly subtle: He shows us the despair that's ruling Oscar, as well as the street 'tude he puts on like armor. Jordan also shows us the joy that comes out in Oscar occasionally, as when he's at the home of his mother, played by Octavia Spencer.
Coogler, as a director, does an amazing job of immersing us in this one life, so that when it's cut short, you won't just cry, you'll cry out in protest. "Fruitvale Station" is great political filmmaking because it's great filmmaking, period.