Arriving laden with prizes from the usual festivals, "Fruitvale Station" demonstrates once again the relevance of the small, independent films shoehorned into the narrow space amidst the noisy blockbusters, witless comedies, and insipid chick flicks that clog the summer screens. Along with such documentaries as "Capitalism: A Love Story," and "The Tillman Story," and a docudrama like "Fair Game," it shows how some filmmakers take up the slack of an indolent and cowardly media, which rarely fulfill their obligation to investigate fully so many controversial stories.
A docudrama, "Fruitvale" shows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, California, who was killed in the early moments of 2009 by the police in the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station of the title. The story begins with some actual images from the cell phones of the bystanders who witnessed the incident, then shifts back 24 hours to the beginning of the end of Oscar's life, chronicling a great many moments from the day he never suspected would be his last.
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), who lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), seems a good natured, if feckless young man, devoted to Sophina and Tatiana, but also involved in illegal enterprises. No saint, he deals in drugs and has served time in San Quentin for some unspecified but presumably serious offense. He lies to Sophina and his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), about being fired from his job at a supermarket for habitual lateness.
He spends his day driving all over Oakland, buying food for his mother's birthday party, chatting with friends, and proving that he is a good person at heart, a point the director belabors mercilessly. He pets a stray dog, then grieves when a careless driver hits the poor animal, helps a customer at the supermarket with his grandmother's recipe for gumbo, demonstrates his closeness with his loving family, and drives to the seashore to meet one of his clients, contemplates his life, and dumps his bag of marijuana in the ocean.
At her birthday party, his mother advises him to take the BART train into San Francisco for a New Year's Eve celebration with his friends, so there will be no danger of driving drunk — a decision that seals his doom. On the way back from the city to Oakland, an old enemy attacks him in the crowded car and all hell breaks loose. The transit police arrive, rough up all the young African Americans (naturally), and amid the panic and confusion, a cop shoots the handcuffed Oscar in the back, the act captured on the cell phones of the other passengers.
Oscar's story and the circumstances of his death are of course sadly all too familiar in our time and place, and especially relevant in its rough parallels to so many cases, including the killing of Trayvon Martin. The punishment of the police officers implicated in Oscar's death seems entirely inadequate to the severity of the offense, another unsurprising verdict.
The director, Ryan Coogler, employs an appropriately direct and generally neutral stance, allowing the story in effect to tell itself. The frequent shots of the BART trains going by suggest the inevitable fate that awaits Oscar. Coogler's frequent use of a hand-held camera keeps the essentially simple, straightforward action lively and reinforces the documentary feel of the film.
Although "Fruitvale Station" rather heavily underlines Oscar's inherent goodness and decency, both the settings and the actors create a sense of authenticity. As in a genuine documentary, the camera at times seems to eavesdrop on the real lives of real people dwelling and working in real places. They rarely appear to be acting rather than simply living and very little seems fake or off key.
Of all the people in the picture, the most impressive is Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother. She brings tremendous strength and depth to the character, whether sternly dealing with his criminal activity in a quietly powerful visit at San Quentin or calming Oscar's friends waiting and praying as he lies dying in the hospital. Her exceptional work summarizes the successes of an important, if imperfect work of cinema.