What happened on New Year’s Eve 2009 is a great example of a perfect storm of events that steamrolled into tragedy. Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African-American kid in the San Francisco Bay Area who was just starting to get his life together. He was learning to be a responsible father, and trying his best at being a responsible partner to the mother of his child. He did his time in jail, and at the risk of his mother disowning him, was doing his best to clean up and not go back.
But Oscar and his buddies decided to go out on New Year’s and to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train instead of driving. After midnight, an altercation on the train let unarmed Oscar and his friends to be pulled onto the platform by BART police. Pinned face down on the platform, Oscar was shot in the back by a white BART officer, in front of a train full of horrified onlookers (many of whom recorded videos of the incident).
Fruitvale Station opens with that moment, then goes back to reconstruct the last 24 hours or so of Oscar’s life. We see Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) at home with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter. He goes to the supermarket where he was fired, flirts with a white customer, and tries to get his job back. He calls his grandma. He calls his mom. He sees a dog get hit by a car and tries to save it (this seemed a little heavy-handed). We get flashes of his temper and his previous self (with flashbacks to prison time, where his mother, played by the fabulous Octavia Spencer, walks out on him… which seems to scare him straight). We see him and his friends plan their night out.
Jordan does a nice job making Oscar not just a saint, but a complex young man struggling to pull his life together. The supporting cast is uniformly fine as well, with the warm, but firm Spencer being a standout. But I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that the film could have been stronger, richer, more moving. This is the feature film debut of Ryan Coogler, who himself is an African-American man in his 20s from the Bay Area. He treats the topic with respect, and you can tell that the story is very close to him. If anything, the film portrays the underlying tension and complexity that is still a factor of modern race relations.