I’ve been paying tribute to Fruitvale Station since I first saw this emotional powerhouse at Sundance in January. And why not? It’s a movie that matters. Debuting director Ryan Coogler brings a stinging urgency to the true story of Oscar Grant, 22, a convicted African-American drug dealer trying to go straight until he is fatally shot at the Fruitvale train station by a Bay Area transit cop on New Year’s Day 2009. Real cellphone footage opens the film, but this is not a documentary. Coogler shows us Oscar as a man, not a statistic, as he traces his activities on the last day of his life.
As Oscar, Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) gives a great, elemental performance, bursting with ferocity and feeling. Naysayers claim the movie turns him into a martyr. What the what? Jordan lets us see Oscar as headstrong enough to be unemployable and irresponsible enough to cheat on his girlfriend (a terrific Melonie Diaz), the mother of their four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). In a shattering prison scene, Oscar locks horns with his aggrieved mom (Octavia Spencer), who is ready to turn her back on a son who keeps promising what he can’t deliver. Spencer, an Oscar winner for The Help, exudes grit and grace, breaking your heart in the process. She and Jordan don’t make a false move.
Does the movie? Coogler overreaches, but his ache to do justice to Oscar rings true, as does his depiction of racial profiling as an escalator of tension, not a defuser. Fruitvale Station is a gut punch of a movie. By standing in solidarity with Oscar, it becomes an unstoppable cinematic force.