Fruitvale Station is powerful real-life drama

Ryan Coogler's assured directorial debut is the best movie of the summer.

Fruitvale Station tells the story of 22-year African-American Oscar Grant, the Oakland resident who was shot and killed on Jan. 1, 2009 by a transit agency officer after being detained with his friends for being involved in a fight on a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train. That incident at the Fruitvale BART station. which was filmed by several people with cellphones, and the reaction to a subsequent court verdict, became the focus point of outrage in Oakland, leading to demonstrations and protests.

The film was released in New York, L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area on July 12, a day before a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old black teen Trayvon Martin. As we all know, the verdict has also led to nationwide protests, and in Oakland (where I saw the film), some serious civil unrest. The mayor there, Jean Quan, complained that the protesters who trashed independent businesses, and attacked television cameramen and one restaurant waiter, were out-of-towners, but one of those protesting told KFPA radio that, in fact, some of those who caused the disturbance were incensed after viewing Fruitvale Station.

The film is directed by first-timer Ryan Coogler, who has been justifiably praised for depicting Grant as a complex, even contradictory human being. Grant’s played by Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), who's getting lots of good press for his performance, though just as much praise should be lavished on co-stars Melonie Diaz, who plays Grant’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer, who is extremely effective as Grant’s mother, Wanda (Spencer also produced the movie).

Because we know how this story will end, there is an added level of almost existential drama introduced early on. Coogler creates an almost-unbearable tension, particularly in the waning moments of the film. There are a number of indelible scenes, but the one I’ll never get out of my mind is when Grant, in a moment of reflection about what he wants to do with his life, has a flashback to a prison visit from his mother. After a brief but warm exchange, his mood turns ugly as he launches into a fiery tirade at an inmate who insults her.

Grant's mother then watches him go into his full Gangsta’ mode, and she's horrified — she sees firsthand how hard her sweet son can be. Disgusted, she tells Oscar that she’s no longer going to visit him in the brig. Grant initially reacts with disgust, but then desperation as he cries out for his mother to give him a hug as she storms out. It’s an intense and beautiful scene.

When the credits rolled at the conclusion (they come quickly, as Fruitvale Station clocks in less than 90 minutes), the friend I saw the film with mentioned that the name Johannes Mehserle was omitted. Mehserie is the BART police officer who killed Grant. He claimed in court that he meant to shoot Grant with a Taser, not a real live gun. His attorneys argued it was a tragic mistake, and in May 2010 a jury ultimately found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter — not murder, which prosecutors were pushing for. He ended up serving 11 months of a two-year sentence. Apparently Mehserle refused to sign an agreement with the production, and he only comes on the scene in the final moments of the film, with little subtlety.

That omission aside, Fruitvale Station well acted and directed, tells a powerful true-life story, and is the must-see movie of the summer.

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