Movie review: 'Fruitvale Station' puts a human face on a tragic shooting

Review • Quiet moments lead to a shattering conclusion.
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The powerful urban drama "Fruitvale Station," which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, starts with a flashpoint moment in America's apparently endless struggle with race.

Here are the facts: On New Year's morning 2009, in a tense encounter with police, 22-year-old Oscar Julius Grant III was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a BART station in Oakland, Calif. He later died in the hospital. Passengers on the BART train recorded the shooting on their cellphones, and the video was seen widely – prompting protests and riots around the Bay Area against police mistreatment of African Americans.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler, a Bay Area native, begins with those facts as he weaves an engaging, emotional and human-scaled story that imagines the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant's life.

Starting with a chilling cellphone-shot re-enactment of the shooting, Coogler flashes back to the beginning of that tragic day. He finds Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) at home in Hayward, Calif., at a crossroads in his life. He's trying to make right with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who caught him cheating. He's trying to get back his job at a nearby supermarket. And he's trying to do right by his mom (Octavia Spencer), who's celebrating her birthday on the last day of the year.

Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison capture, in documentary style, moments of Grant's day. He helps a supermarket customer (Ahna O'Reilly) figure out how to do a fish fry. He rescues a pit bull that is run over in the street. He drops his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), off at daycare. He contemplates whether to sell a bag of marijuana in his possession and thinks back to the sadness in his mother's eyes a year earlier when she visited him in prison.

Because we know how this story ends, normally mundane moments take on an air of tragic foreshadowing. Sophina pleads with Grant to come clean, to get his life together and think about his future. When Grant and Sophina make plans to travel to San Francisco to watch the New Year's fireworks, it's Mom who suggests that to avoid traffic they should take the train.

There is room for a debate about the dramatic license Coogler takes with Grant's life, truncating or possibly inventing episodes of his life and cramming them into a single day. But Coogler's take quietly serves to show Grant as a human being, with his flaws and redeeming qualities, and not just as a face in a newspaper obituary.

Coogler provides Jordan a golden acting opportunity, and the young actor does not disappoint. Jordan (who co-starred in the UFO thriller "Chronicle" and played the quarterback for two seasons on "Friday Night Lights") channels Grant's frustration with his life as an unemployed parolee, but also his determination to do right by Sophina and Tatiana.

Jordan is well-matched by his female co-stars. Diaz, an indie darling ("Hamlet 2," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"), effuses both love for Grant and hard-earned skepticism that he can correct his past mistakes. And Spencer, fairly fresh off her Oscar for "The Help," serves as the gentle moral anchor for Grant and the wider community.

"Fruitvale Station" arrives in theaters just as another case of a young African-American shooting victim, Trayvon Martin, dominates the headlines. It's difficult to compare Grant's death to Martin's in terms of specifics (Martin wasn't shot by a cop, and there was no cellphone footage to clarify how he was killed), but the movie may help by focusing attention on the person, not the profile.

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'Fruitvale Station'

A moving portrait of an African-American shooting victim that focuses on the man's life, not the newspaper headlines.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, July 26.

Rating • R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.

Running time • 90 minutes.