Fruitvale Station begins with an ending. Video from a cell phone camera, shot on New Year's Day 2009, depicts several African-American men sitting against a wall at an Oakland train station. The police are holding them for an unspecified act; there's a bit of commotion, one of the men is laid face-down on the ground, and then, out of nowhere, a cop fires a bullet into his back. Thus begins the story of Oscar Grant's final hours on Earth.
This is not a movie for the faint of heart, and I don't mean those who can't stomach the occasional scary movie. There is no Hollywood ending; tears will flow and hearts will break. Fruitvale Station is based on an event that most of its viewers are probably familiar with, and the first few minutes ensure that even the uninformed know how it's going to turn out. It's not a matter of "I hope Oscar will be OK," although his ultimate fate isn't revealed until the film's climax. There's a persistent undercurrent of sadness; we are aware that this is the last time Oscar will kiss his girlfriend, hug his daughter, ride the train.
It's not all about despair, though; it's a day in his life. There are moments of levity and even joy, with first-time director (and writer) Ryan Coogler proving adept at picking and choosing times to lighten up. There are even a few seconds where it seems like Oscar's fortunes might turn around: a chance meeting with a small business owner could conceivably turn into a job opportunity and a fresh start. Ultimately, though, this ends up being even more depressing; Oscar won't get a chance to continue that conversation.
I have no idea how much of Oscar's cinematic day was invented and how much is true to life, but Coogler's choice to lay it all out in a straightforward fashion proves wise. We're taken from event to event with no real commentary or sense of forced emotion; Oscar isn't painted as a tragic hero, destined for greatness, only to be gunned down in his prime. He's just a human being who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that makes what happens to him (both onscreen and off) even worse.
A lot of people are saying "Michael B. Jordan is the next Denzel Washington," and....yes. That is accurate. More people can, and should, say that. At one point, I turned to my moviegoing companion and said "When this guy wins a handful of Oscars in 20 years, we can say we saw him way back when."
He was effortlessly charming as Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights; he was the most watchable part of Chronicle. And he's unbelievable here; very understated, not giving into spectacle or turning Oscar into a larger-than-life character. He's a conflicted young man just going about his business; unfortunately, he's also black and prone to outbursts of anger, which leads two equally angry (and unnecessarily terrified) cops to make their horrifying decision.
There are a few dramatic moments in Fruitvale Station that feel a little forced, in particular when Octavia Spencer (Oscar's mother) insists over and over that her son take the train that evening. The audience is already very aware that serious trouble will befall Oscar and his companions; this bit of dialogue only seems to exist so that Spencer can wail "I was the one who told him to take the train!" when Oscar is in the hospital. In a movie where everything else feels so natural, a conversation like that stands out (and not in a good way).
Nevertheless, it's a powerful moment. And that's the beauty of Fruitvale Station: it is staggering in its uncompromising bluntness. Coogler doesn't pull any punches; the movie doesn't end with an uplifting message or a promise of hope. It ends with a silent child and mother, contemplating existence without the man who was taken from them for no good reason.
It's a reminder that everyone is loved by someone, and that ending a life destroys so much more than just one person's existence.