“Fruitvale Station” is a movie that tells us unfortunate things that we already know: Race matters, justice is imperfect and confusion has a way of leading to violence. Based on a true story, the movie follows 22-year-old Oscar Grant on what turns out to be the last day of his life. This is no secret, even without prior knowledge of the case. The movie opens with cell-phone footage taken on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., of a row of black men sitting against a wall with police bearing down over them. It is shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day 2009, and the platform is crowded with onlookers. An officer rolls one of the men over onto his stomach. There is shouting, there is cursing, there is something being removed from the officer’s pocket. A gun goes off and the screen turns black.
Now that we know how Oscar dies, the movie tries to reconstruct a story of how he lived — to make what feels abstractly devastating at the beginning of the movie feel personally devastating when we come back to it at the end. It’s a big task. Nobody wants to be lectured on the tragedy of obviously tragic events, or made to feel guilty about circumstances beyond their control. Thankfully, the movie does not do that. There are moments of absurd heavy-handedness, but also moments of poetry so ephemeral and true that I momentarily forgot the way it was all going to end.
We learn plenty about Oscar in the first 10 minutes: He is horny, irresponsible, casual and sweet-natured, but has a lurking temper that we can easily understand might get him into real trouble. Lying in bed next to Sophina, his girlfriend and mother of his child, he apologizes for cheating and tries to assure her he will not be fucking with that bitch again. He promises forever, and when Sophina rightly asks what he means, I almost thought he was going to pull the ring out right there, but no: He leans in and tries to make out with her. Their daughter, Tatiana, knocks, at which point he stuffs a gallon ziplock bag of weed into a closet, then invites her in to lie down with them. At 10 minutes after midnight, lying next to his daughter and baby momma in a tiny, disheveled bedroom, he texts his mother, wishing her a happy birthday, with four exclamation points.
In short, we learn that Oscar is a sympathetic person, with obvious aspirations and more obvious flaws. As the movie unfolds, we find out he has lost his job at a supermarket for showing up late, and simultaneously trying to give up selling weed, not because he’s in any acute danger but because selling weed is not something that someone who wants to get his life on track does. It is New Year’s Eve, and Oscar, like so many people, has stale prospects but is hoping for a fresh start.
Picking up some crabs for his mom’s birthday party, he meets a genteel white girl named Katie, who is struggling to figure out what kind of fish is best for frying. It’s for a friend she wants to cook for, she explains sheepishly. “Is he black?” Oscar asks. “He’s white, but he knows a lot of black people,” she says, an almost extraterrestrially weird conversation designed to get us to understand that white or black, Oscar just wants to be helpful.
Katie ends up on the phone with his Grandma Bonnie, who teaches her a thing or two while Oscar tracks down his now former boss in one of the aisles and asks for his job back. Low music throbs, and we can see Oscar is getting angry: “I need this fucking job,” he says, grabbing the manager’s arm. Played by Michael B. Jordan (Wallace on “The Wire,” quarterback Vince Howard on “Friday Night Lights”), Oscar is broad but boyish, with generous eyes and a nice smile. He seems scared by his own temper, or unable to fully carry it. This is crucial: While the movie suggests he can get angry enough to throw a punch, for the most part it presents him as exceedingly laid back. Real violence — the kind done to him in the final scenes of the movie — seems mostly foreign to him.
His threat to the supermarket manager goes nowhere, and he wanders back to the fish counter, where Katie returns his phone to him and he smiles, swallowing his shame and becoming the friendly dude he’d been a minute or two earlier, and is for most of the movie.
The contrast — between angry Oscar and friendly Oscar — is instructive, maybe too much so. The longer we follow him the more the anxious the movie seems to have him demonstrate the full range of his character, knowing that time is running out. Single days can be microcosms for whole lives, but there are times the movie feels over determined. Ironically, the need to make meaning from Oscar’s life is what ends up sapping some of the power of the movie’s premise: We trade the loose specialness of the everyday for the steady march of storytelling. At one point, he cradles a pit bull struck by an indifferent car speeding down the road, and while he does not actually say “why, God, why?” the words are implied.
The fulcrum of the movie is his mother’s birthday party. Grandma Bonnie cooks gumbo; Tatiana cracks crab legs over the sink next to her; Sophina scrubs shrimp and mom chops, while Oscar takes to an adjoining den — wood-paneled walls, beige carpeting on the floor — to talk football with unnamed male friends and relatives.
The rhythm of the scene is easy, the dialogue overlapping, the camera soft-focus and close enough to the characters’ bodies to feel their heat. They smile and laugh, seemingly at nothing, the way people simply happy to be in each others’ company do. When they gather in the den to say grace, the room is so small that we have to watch them from in the kitchen. It is a beautiful, intimate and effortless scene, and where we really come to see what Oscar stands to lose.
At this point the movie remembers that it has a tragedy to get to, and starts becoming more vise-like. Oscar and Sophina have plans to head across the bay to see the fireworks in San Francisco. Oscar’s mother suggests they take the train instead of driving, both to avoid traffic and so they don’t end up driving drunk. For a parent to be concerned about a child’s safety is one thing, but for them to lay out travel logistics is another. On the ride over to Sophina’s sister’s house to drop Tatiana off, Oscar suggests they just stay in for the night and watch the fireworks on TV. When they drop Tatiana off, she tells Oscar she’s scared for him, because she heard gunshots outside. They were just fireworks, he assures her. Fate is not left to unfold, it is orchestrated and spelled out in flashing marquee letters every step of the way.
We see one flashback in the movie, to a prison stint. We don’t know the crime. We do know that he meets a guy there — a hefty white guy with a collar of neck tattoos — that Oscar doesn’t get along with. Coming back from San Francisco — a dreamy, happy chain of scenelets that includes a subway-car dance party, blunts, and a chance encounter between Oscar and a chiseled, yuppie-type web developer who tells him not to wait to marry Sophina — Oscar runs into this tattooed guy on the train, and this is when the movie comes apart. They fight, the train stops, the police unload Oscar and his friends, but don’t bother to track down the white guys they fought with — the suggestion being subtle but really not that subtle.
From here you know what happens. True to the reality of violence, the moment Oscar is shot feels haphazard and abrupt, not really the product of cause and effect. It could happen 30 seconds before it does or 30 seconds after. Lying on the deck of the station with blood seeping out of his mouth, Oscar reminds us of the thing we most need to know about him: “I have a daughter.”
Oscar is black, which only seems to matter intermittently during the movie but by the end — at least in the mind of the 27-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler and Oscar’s real-life community in the Bay Area — is crucially important. There are two officers most obviously responsible for Oscar’s abuse in the train station, one of whom is also responsible for his shooting. One of them has high cheekbones and cornflower hair, the other has square shoulders and a military buzzcut: Hyperbolically Aryan specimens, not white people with power so much as the idea of white people with power.
But for the most part, the movie doesn’t concern itself with race head-on. It’s an interesting strategy. Despite how procedural the movie feels by the end, what happens to Oscar is surprising precisely because his race, for most of the movie, hasn’t been an issue.
The ugliest and most complex parts of “Fruitvale Station” — the nature of Oscar’s jail time and the post-shooting trial of the transit police officer — are ignored or relegated to postscript. In one frame, we learn that the officer’s defense team argued that in a moment of panic the officer had reached for his taser but actually pulled his gun, and only ended up spending 11 months in jail — words that leave the screen too soon.
Asking whether or not the movie is tragic is different from asking whether or not the events that inspired it are. Provoked or unprovoked, a victim of honest confusion or overt racism, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old man, is shot in the back by a police officer. “Fruitvale Station” treats the event with little mystery and less ambiguity. It starts strong but gets tiring because you are continually being told how to feel. Then again, what’s really sad about Oscar’s story is that there aren’t many ways to feel about it to begin with. ‘FRUITVALE STATION’: Michael B. Jordan stars.