As deplorable and upsetting as the George Zimmerman verdict was for many, at least one good thing came out of it (apart from reminding everyone that racial injustice is alive and well even in this age of Obama and worth your outrage): It may encourage some people to see Fruitvale Station. Just like with the Trayvon Martin saga, this fact-based film tells of a young black man cut down in his prime, another victim of racist crossfire. People should see this movie (which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival) because it's a moving, well-done piece of cinema. But since it's apparently legal in some parts of the country for white men to kill black people now, some people may go just to show they're down with the struggle.
The real-life subject is Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area man whose senseless killing by Bay Area Rapid Transit cops captured on camera phones in the early-morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 caused an outcry. The movie starts off with that grainy cellphone footage before sliding into the story, where we spend a compressed 24 hours following Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) on what would become the last day of his life. As the movie progresses, the footage always looms in the subconscious, a soul-crushing reminder of what will come for this poor son-of-a-bitch.
Two-time convicted felon Grant is certainly a man faced with some hard luck. Before the movie's first 30 minutes is over, he is relieved of his duties at a grocery store for showing up late too many times. With bills and the rent both due, he briefly contemplates going back to selling weed. But after flashing back to the heartbreaking time his mother (Octavia Spencer, who actually deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this) visited him in jail, he opts against it. He'll figure out something — "something legal," he later assures Sophina (the always reliable Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who does a stunningly confident job behind the lens, Fruitvale is refreshing in the way it forgoes the stereotypes and tropes usually found in "hood" flicks. Instead, it gives us a distressing yet human and fully realized study of an empathetic Everyman who happens to be black. Coogler keeps his camera focused on Grant as he interacts with family, friends, strangers — emitting a million-watt smile when he's around friendly people one minute, donning a scowling game-face the next when he's not. (This is where Jordan, who has already gained fans with his performances in the acclaimed TV dramas The Wire and Friday Night Lights, truly shines.)
But despite his born-loser M.O., Grant is essentially a decent, charming human being. We first see him put that charm into action when he helps out a white woman (Ahna O'Reilly) at the supermarket by giving her proper fish-fry advice. Initially standoffish, the lady is eventually won over by Grant's playful, charismatic demeanor, especially when he calls his grandmother during their interaction and urges her to tell this white gal how to cook fish. He later disarms another white person with his good nature in a quick bonding session with a patron (Darren Bridgett) outside a closed restaurant as their ladies use the restroom inside.
As woeful as Grant's story turns out, Fruitvale ultimately exhibits an idealistic we're-all-in-the-same-gang pathos that Coogler hopes will stay with his audience. Before Grant tragically meets his fate, he, Sophina and their friends first spend their New Year's Eve night stuck on a crowded, halted BART train. With the countdown to the New Year imminent, Grant aids in getting the party started in his car. He and fellow passengers, black and white, assemble a makeshift stereo system, rousing other passengers into celebrating and having a good time. It's a wonderful, subtly orchestrated scene of racial and social unity that you rarely see in movies.
Even so, it's certainly a sad state of affairs when movies like Fruitvale Station have to come along and show the country, now more than ever, what it should know by now: Black people are people, too.