There are occasionally perks to this job, and getting an early glimpse of the vital new drama Fruitvale Station during a press screening in Sacramento today certainly qualifies.
The film, which local audiences can see on Friday, tells the true-life tale of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old East Bay man shot and killed by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. Grant (brought to captivating life by an excellent Michael B. Jordan) was pinned down by multiple officers at the Fruitvale station in Oakland when the fatal shot entered his back. The homicide was recorded by multiple cellphones and sparked community outcry before, during and after the trial, which ended with an involuntary manslaughter conviction and two-year prison term for one officer (11 months of which he served).
Sacramento State University alum Ryan Coogler’s assured directorial debut walks up to that harrowing moment in the station with the slow, languid steps of someone approaching the gallows. It’s a day-in-the-life pastiche coursing with the current of tragedy: Grant drops off his daughter and girlfriend. He buys groceries for his mother’s birthday. He tries—and fails—to get his job at the grocery store back. He sets up a meet to sell some weed.
Each errand thrums with the audience’s anxious foreknowledge of what’s to come.
Coogler fills his frame with naturally lit images of modern-day Oakland, the casual disrepair of neighborhoods, the blanched storefronts, the faces of color going about their day. It feels as authentic as the Bay Area hip-hop Grant nods to in his beat-down car.
All the while, you’re getting to know Grant, a charismatic, complicated guy who’s made some mistakes and may not be done making them. But he’s trying. Fitfully, clumsily, he tries.
Jordan’s small, melancholy eyes telegraph the quiet tempest of a young man caught in the breach. He couldn’t make it selling “trees” and he can’t yet make it straight. He’s struggling to figure it out and stumbling along the way. Meanwhile, he has a precious daughter and devoted—if wary—girlfriend needing him to succeed. The pressure hangs on him like the baggy, hooded sweatshirt he wears. All the while, he can’t see what’s coming. But we can. And when it does, it outrages.
Comparisons to the Trayvon Martin tragedy are unavoidable. (The Weinstein Co., which bought and distributed the film after it wowed Sundance and Cannes festivalgoers, courted some of these comparisons—and controversy—with the timing of its rollout.)
Without wading into that conversation, I can say that Fruitvale Station deserves to be measured on its own devastating terms.
The normally jaded ranks of media professionals I shared the screening room with were overcome by emotion watching a story they already knew unfold with understated grace, a description that also applies to Octavia Spencer’s moving performance as Grant’s mother.
When the film ended, my colleague Dave Kempa and I regarded the comment cards a screening rep handed us. The 3-by-5-inch rectangles seemed inadequate to convey our true reactions.
“What the fuck do we put on these?” Dave wondered.
When we went outside to ask the rep—a small, elderly man sent by a Bay Area publicist—he stammered, “I can’t…I’m sorry, I just watched it…I can’t talk about it right now…”
Which should tell you all you need to know about Fruitvale Station: Sometimes a work hits so true, you can’t even sell it.