FRUITVALE STATION starts with an ending. In cell-phone footage, all shrieks and shaking, we see the final moments of Oscar Grant—a 22-year-old black man from Oakland who became, long before we mourned for a boy named Trayvon Martin, a symbol of society's profound struggles with race, police brutality, and privilege.
It's a few hours into New Year's Day 2009, and a transit cop stands over Grant and his friends in the aftermath of a fight on a commuter train. The cops are indelicate, impatient. The men struggle back. Grant, in handcuffs, is dumped onto his stomach. Suddenly, in the chaos, one of the cops fires his gun into Grant's back. The crowd wails at a needless and visceral homicide. The picture fades out.
In real life, Grant's death—and the pale justice that followed, with the cop who shot him serving merely 11 months for manslaughter—sparked riots. But it's only then, when we know how Grant's story ends, that Fruitvale Station—a dramatized retelling of the day that preceded Grant's death—can finally begin.
The next time we see Grant? It's almost 24 hours before he lay bleeding out on a train platform. He's in bed with his girlfriend. They bicker and smooch, until their four-year-old cutely interrupts, and they all drift off together. We've glimpsed the lionized Oscar Grant that the world remembers; now we get to spend 80-plus minutes meeting the Grant that his family is still trying to remember.
Grant, it turns out, was not a saint. He dealt pot. He didn't have a job. Unlike Martin—squeaky clean but for a hoodie—he was hardly a straight-A student. But neither was he a thug nor a hopeless, dull villain—someone whose death, bigots have argued, didn't matter in the long run. He was a human being.
The story of his final day—with some flourishes, but keeping mostly true to his family's recollections and his texts and calls—winds up standing in as a story about the days that preceded it. He's a family man. He calls his grandmother and mother, running errands for them. And he dotes on his daughter, clearly his anchor in otherwise rough seas of self-destruction: Grant is still struggling, throughout the movie, with his record, his rent payments, and his own rough childhood.
It's mundane and quiet, and sometimes funny. Except that you know how it ends. And in the hands of first-time director Ryan Coogler, drawing from his own life as a juvie hall counselor, that tension is haunting.
There are moments when the story veers into the maudlin. A scene where Grant is bloodied after holding a run-over dog left for dead, is way too nail-on-the-head, and temporarily breaks Coogler's spell. Coogler also plays the "what-if" angle a bit too hard: What if Grant stayed home? What if he drove? But those are quibbles.
The Wire's Michael B. Jordan, winsome and swaggering, channels the wounded but loving boy still trembling inside the troubled man Grant grew up to become. He also captures Grant's apparent hope for something better, despite his mistakes.
Later, we come back to Grant and the train platform. We see him die again. And this time, at least, we think we know who we're grieving.