Dir. Ryan Cooglar, U.S.A.,  2013.

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Based on a true incident, 27-year-old writer and director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is a disturbing account of the last day of the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old African American, shot and killed by an officer of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) at the Fruitvale subway station in Oakland, California after returning celebrating New Years Eve with his friends in 2009. At the beginning of the film, actual footage is shown of the shooting but we do not yet know anything about the deceased man, his life and his dreams.

Winner of both the Gran Prix and Audience Awards at Sundance and a first-film prize winner in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes, Fruitvale Station is a work of powerful authenticity that allows us to connect more closely with the man and the incident beyond the information we may receive on TV news. Conducting research and interviews with family and friends, the events unfold like a thriller, even though we know the inevitable outcome. Although some scenes are added for dramatic effect, there is no attempt to sugar coat Grant's life and he is presented, warts and all, as a hot-tempered ex-con, a drug dealer, an unreliable employee, and an unfaithful partner.

Oscar is flawed like the rest of us but the astute and moving performance by Michael B. Jordan allows us to discover his humanity and care about him. Working to get his life back, he has received his GED despite having dropped out of high school, and has given up selling drugs. Coogler takes us through his day, which we know will be his last. Although he was fired from his job, he returns to the supermarket where he last worked to ask his boss to reconsider. He gets some food for his mother Wanda's (Octavia L. Spencer) birthday party in the evening, picks up a card for his sister who cannot come to the party, sees his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), tells his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) that he loves her, and helps a young woman who needs advice on making a fish fry by having her talk to his grandmother (Marjorie Shears).

After his mother's party, Oscar and Sophina and their friends go to San Francisco to celebrate the New Year. On their return, their celebration is cut short by cruel and unnecessary police violence caught on cell phone video which went viral and led to protest demonstrations throughout the Bay Area. Coogler's handling of the scene does not hammer us with the gruesomeness of the events but allows the audience to act simply as a witness to the crime. One of the most poignant scenes is when Oscar's mother sees his body and cries "I told him to get on the train... I didn't think they'd hurt my baby."

Ultimately, the officer who did the shooting, Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by a jury in Los Angeles, and served eleven months in prison after he claimed that he intended to use his taser rather than his pistol. Although there is little doubt that the director is sympathetic to Oscar's story, Fruitvale Station does not assault us with a message, but on the eve of the profiling and shooting of an unarmed black boy in Sanford, Florida, the message is clear and does not need to be spelled out.

While the incident may be different than that of Trayvon Martin, it cannot stand apart from the long history of racial injustice and the inequality of the legal system in America. While the film will not end racial tension, it may go a long way towards opening people's eyes about the reality of police misconduct. As Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati said, "If you can't eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it."


Howard Schumann

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