The shaky iPhone video ran hundreds of times on local and national newscasts in the first months of 2009, but its impact feels new and even bigger when viewed on a movie screen. The image is poor and the sound is distorted by the many raised, overlapping voices, but this much is clear: The BART cops pull one of the young black men from the group, put him on his stomach, and cuff him. And then one of the officers pulls out his pistol and shoots him dead. The sound of that gunshot packs a terrifying jolt, and the screen cuts to black.
In that moment, it seems wrong to think of anything but Oscar Julius Grant III, the man whose life was so brutally taken. But upon seeing it in Fruitvale Station, my mind nevertheless leapt to Sanford, Florida, where the aural counterpart, tapes of 911 calls capturing the final moments of Trayvon Martin's life, have been unspooling for the past three weeks. In that courtroom, and in the coverage of the events within it, a young black man's death has prompted speculation, assumptions, and judgment about his life. And in theaters across the country, Fruitvale Station considers those some questions about Oscar Grant.
Over the 90 minutes that follow the iPhone clip that opens the film, writer/director Ryan Coogler dramatizes the day that turned out to be Grant's last. Yet this is not merely a mournful docudrama; it's a film of keenly observed behavior and subtle domestic details, one that offers a bravely complex portrait of a man unjustly killed. Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) is 22, living with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter. He's hot tempered, has trouble with fidelity, and deals marijuana--though his New Year's resolution is to quit slinging and go straight. It won't be easy. He lost his job at a grocery store weeks earlier (due to chronic lateness) and hasn't worked up the nerve yet to tell Sophina. Instead, he goes back to the store and begs his old boss for his job back. When his request is refused, he loses his cool: He yells at, and even threatens, the man who could help him.
In that one scene, Coogler (and the excellent Jordan) tactfully conveys how Oscar's rage switches on and how quickly it gets out of his control. It's a foreboding turn of events, since we already know about his death--have already seen it, even--and thus presume that that anger will return to haunt him. But the entire sequence around that blow-up showcases the duality of his person. Mere moments earlier, while visiting a friend at the butcher's counter, he helps a customer looking for help buying supplies for a fish fry by putting her on the phone with his grandma for tips--and he doesn't even work there anymore. He's capable of being both kind and brutal, both honorable and troubling, both guilty and innocent.