As deplorable and upsetting as the George Zimmerman verdict was for many, at least one good thing came out of it: a well-deserved publicity boost to Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
This fact-based movie tells of a young black male who, like Trayvon Martin, was the victim of racist crossfire. People should see the film for its artistic merits—but since it's apparently legal in some parts of the country for whites to kill blacks, people may embrace this flick just to show they're down with the struggle.
Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area man whose senseless murder by transit cops in the early-morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 sparked an outcry. The movie opens with actual cell-phone footage of Grant's death before sliding into the story, which follows Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) on what would be the last day of his life. As the movie progresses, that cell-phone footage looms in the subconscious, a soul-crushing foreshadow of what will come.
Grant, a twice-convicted felon, has had some hard luck. Before the movie's first 30 minutes are up, he loses his job at a grocery store (for chronic lateness). With rent and bills due, he briefly contemplates going back to selling weed, but he opts against it after recalling a heartbreaking visit in jail with this mother (Octavia Spencer, whose performance here is more Oscar-worthy than her turn in The Help). He'll figure out something—"something legal," he later assures his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who's also the mother of his adorable daughter.
Fruitvale Station is refreshing in the way it forgoes stereotypes and tropes usually found in "hood" flicks. First-time director Ryan Coogler, showing remarkable confidence behind the lens, gives us a distressing, yet human and fully realized, study of a relatable everyman who just happens to be black.
The charismatic Grant dominates the film as he interacts with family, friends and strangers, emitting a million-watt smile when he's around friendly people and a scowling game face when he's not. Though not yet a household name, Jordan has attracted adulation for his performances in the television dramas The Wire and Friday Night Lights.
We first see him turn on his charm when he helps a white woman (Ahna O'Reilly) at the supermarket by giving her fish-fry advice. Later, he has a bonding session with a white guy (Darren Bridgett) outside a closed restaurant as their ladies are inside using the restroom.
As dreadfully as Grant's story turns out, Fruitvale ultimately exhibits an idealistic, we're-all-in-the-same-gang pathos that Coogler hopes the audience will take into consideration the next time they come into contact with suspicious-looking folk.
Before Grant meets his fate, he, Sophina and their friends spend New Year's Eve stuck on a crowded BART train. With the countdown to the New Year imminent, Grant and his fellow passengers, black and white, assemble a makeshift stereo system, rousing other passengers into celebration. It's a wonderful, subtly orchestrated scene of racial and social unity rarely seen in movies.
It's a sad state of affairs when movies like Fruitvale Station have to show everyone what they should know by now: Black people are people, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Teenager, sailor, survivor, killer."