In his untimely death, Oscar Grant III became a lightning rod for outrage.
In "Fruitvale Station," the 22-year-old fatally shot by a BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009 emerges as a flesh-and-blood man.
Most of us know Grant from images splayed on poster boards or the shaky cell phone footage taken when a new year was awakening and a young man's life was fading on an Oakland BART platform.
In director Ryan Coogler's assured and emotionally powerful film, we're invited into the reality of Grant's life at a time when he was trying to steer it in a new direction. "Fruitvale Station" offers insights into the real Grant, the Hayward man who in death became a national symbol of injustice, racism and police brutality.
By narrowing in on the final 24 hours of his life, Coogler creates something that's been lost amid the aftermath of the shooting -- a sharply focused and convincing portrait of a father, a boyfriend, a son who was also once a San Quentin inmate.
Coogler's goal to make Grant more than a symbol couldn't have been possible without the presence and compassionate understanding of the actor portraying him, Michael B. Jordan. The rising star, best known for TV's "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood," viscerally taps into Grant's complexity, showing us his twinkly-eyed charisma, his deep insecurities and his infectious joy at being a father.
His best scene, besides the lovely exchanges between the darling Ariana Neal, who plays his daughter Tatiana, come in a highly charged flashback in San Quentin involving a visit with his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer, in another Oscar-caliber supporting performance). Jordan fearlessly conveys Grant's seething rage in one instant and his pleading desperation in the next. It takes your breath away.
While Jordan is responsible for making Oscar Grant come to life, Coogler deserves equal if not more praise for having so successfully created a sense of the world he lived in.
The young filmmaker, who grew up in Oakland and now lives in Richmond, has already been enthusiastically celebrated ever since "Fruitvale" won the grand jury prize along with audience prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and, later, the best first feature trophy at the Cannes Film Festival. Those honors are well-deserved. It would have been easy for Coogler to have simply made the film a one-dimensional eulogy or a run-of-the-mill cinematic bio that chronicled Grant's life from point A to Z. Instead, he gives us a man on the cusp of change, paying exquisite attention to the details that made him who he was.
His staging of that inevitable New Year's encounter is masterful, re-creating the chaos, turmoil and escalating horror of the altercation and shooting. That Coogler shot much of it at the BART station for which the film is named makes it seem even more significant and real, even if the names of the BART officers portrayed have been changed for filming.
While that scene is the film's most powerful, in every encounter, Coogler and, of course, Jordan make us feel what it was like to be Grant, showing him talking to an indecisive woman trying to decide the suitable type of fish to fry and witnessing a pet pit bull killed by a hit-and-run driver.
Coogler also infuses the film with lived-in realism, from his portrayal of the modest Hayward kitchen apartment Grant shares with his girlfriend Sophina (the impressive Melonie Diaz) and young Tatiana, to the hip-hop music he listens driving around the East Bay streets.
It's that kind of rich texture that makes "Fruitvale Station" such an artistic achievement.
* * * ½
Rating: R (for some violence, language throughout and some drug use)
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O'Reilly, Ariana Neal
Director: Ryan Coogler
1 hour, 24 minutes