As the chronicle of an unarmed African American man being shot and killed, “Fruitvale Station” engages the same issues of profiling, paranoia and the grim realities of being young, black and male that have threaded through discussions of Trayvon Martin, whose killer was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter last weekend.
That verdict came just hours after “Fruitvale Station” opened in Oakland, New York and Los Angeles, where the film’s star, Michael B. Jordan, told a Saturday-night audience that he was devastated by the news.
“My heart hurts so bad right now,” he said during a question-and-answer session after a screening. “I wasn’t going to come after I found out about George Zimmerman getting acquitted. It broke me up. That’s why I think this film means so much, because it keeps happening again and again. [We must] learn how to treat each other better and stop judging one another just because we’re different. It’s not just a black and white thing. It’s a people thing.”
In fact, “a people thing” aptly describes “Fruitvale Station.” The stunning debut from Coogler, 27, is a compassionate, adamantly humanistic film, one that transcends heated rhetoric and reflexive anger, even as it shrewdly illustrates how the dynamics of race operate in 21st-century America.
“Fruitvale Station” begins with real-life cellphone footage of Grant’s death at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stop in Oakland, where Grant and others were detained by transit police after an altercation on a train. The film then flashes back to several hours earlier, when Grant, 22, was making resolutions with his girlfriend, running errands for his mother’s birthday dinner, trying to get his job back at the grocery store where he worked and tending to his young daughter.
Although Coogler indulged in some artistic license — an episode with an injured dog never happened, for example — for the most part, he hewed closely to court records and Grant’s family’s recollections to reconstruct the last day of Grant’s life.
Thanks to Coogler’s somber, reflective direction and a breathtaking performance by Jordan, the audience comes to know Grant, not as a headline or hot-button issue, but as a fully realized human being: warm, tender and generous, but also impulsive and quick to anger; an ex-convict with a troubled past and an admittedly shaky present, but also a cautiously optimistic future. By the time “Fruitvale Station” arrives at its tragically predictable end, viewers are left less with a sense of anger or hatred than profound grief at potential senselessly wasted.