Written and directed by Ryan Coogler (produced by Forrest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi), “Fruitvale Stations” (2013) is like “Twelve Years a Slave” in lacking suspense, though its title does not reveal as much as “Twelve Years a Slave.” Both raise important questions, though set more than a century and a half apart.
And both movies have compelling black male leads, in the case of “Fruitvale Station” Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant III, who was shot in the back at point-blank range while handcuffed on his belly in the first hours of 2009 by a BART (San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit) policeman. Anyone who did not already know that that was what the holiday celebration had in store for Oscar Grant would learn it in the preface, which is cellphone footage of the police harassing four young black men and a gunshot at the one who was prone and utterly defenseless.
The movie goes back to show the preceding day (New Year’s Eve and his mother’s birthday) with a flashback to his irate mother announcing she is never again going to visit him in jail. Though toying with marrying the Blatino mother Sophina (Melonie Diaz)
of his four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neel), Oscar is a devoted father.
He has dealt drugs in the past (hence his incarceration flashback) but is trying to go straight. His mother, Wanda, played by Octavia Spencer who won an Oscar in “The Help” and IMHO should have won another for her performance here, is fed up with his BS, and clearly loves Oscar a lot. She urges him to take public transportation (BART) rather than drive into the city with all the drunks on the roads and bridges.
His posse, including Sophina, leave too late to get to the countdown of the old year and fireworks on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and an early macho confrontation comes back to haunt Oscar on BART coming back home (to Hayward, south of Fruitvale Station in southern Oakland) after what seems a very brief bit of partying in The City (as we like to capitalize it).
Things go very, very wrong, and he is shot while handcuffed and lying on his belly. There is nothing of backstory of the young and easily panicked BART policeman (who got off with manslaughter claiming he thought he was shooting his Taser, though I don’t see any excuse for tazering someone handcuffed and lying on his belly on the platform floor, either).
The movie is all about a fairly prosaic day of a fairly ordinary young, black urban male who was neither saint nor demon. (I find what the characters do and say much more credible than what those in “Enough Said” do and say. to take one other 2013 movie set in this millennium.) As I already said, Jordan is very good as Oscar (perhaps TOO charismatic? But running a gamut of emotions very credibly) and Spencer is totally compelling as his mother (without any scenery chewing). Diaz is very impressive after the shooting, something of a stereotypical jealous Blatina before it.
The photography, interior and exterior, of Rachel Morrison (Any Day Now) deserves kudos, too.
The two bonus features make clear that the moviemakers had full cooperation from BART, which fired the officers involved and has sought to make sure nothing like Grant’s murder occurs again (though an African American male is killed by police every 30 hours somewhere in the US). Spencer is very impressive in the Q&A, more articulate than Coogler (who is not inarticulate). They are fielding some of the most prolix failed questions I have ever heard (live or recorded) from African American Bay Area journalist David D.
BTW, the BART policeman who only served eleven months in prison for involuntary manslaughter, Johannes Sebastian Mehserle, had been the subject of complaints before the night on which he shot Oscar Grant. Three eyewitnesses testified that neither Grant nor the other suspects actively resisted the officers at any time.