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Portrait of a Young Man | A Richmond filmmaker points his lens at Oakland’s tragic 2009 BART shooting in his new movie, Fruitvale Station. | By Michael Fox

Oscar Grant III, like many young men, was contradictory and conflicted. He was polite and compassionate, but possessed a quick temper. He had a fiancee and a young daughter he adored, but he was also an incorrigible flirt. He sold marijuana, but wanted a straight job. He’d served time in prison, but was optimistic about the future. He’d do anything for his mama, but he was also an inveterate liar. In other words, at 22 he was an immature guy with real responsibilities, and ample time and motivation to grow up and deal with them.

The biggest challenge that Oscar Grant faced, perhaps, was that he was a young black man in the East Bay. That’s the unspoken, underlying theme of Fruitvale Station, independent filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s admirably unflinching and vitally important portrait of the last 24 hours in Grant’s life. For those who don’t remember, the Hayward resident was shot in the back on the Fruitvale platform in the early morning of Jan. 1, 2009, by a BART cop responding to a report of a fight. Grant was on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind him, as a packed train of shocked New Year’s celebrants watched and, in a few cases, filmed the shooting with their cell phones.

The must-see film of the summer, Fruitvale Station, opens July 12 amid the empty din of the usual grandiose-but-shallow science fiction and superhero movies. Filmed on location in the East Bay and San Quentin, Coogler’s pulsing, fact-based feature debut has a solid shot at becoming this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. That is, a low-budget indie with the narrative power, thematic weight, fresh perspective, artistic integrity, and critical acclaim to go all the way to the Academy Awards. This isn’t just hometown hyperbole talking. The film (originally titled Fruitvale) received a huge boost at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award in the dramatic competition. Backed by the marketing cunning of the Weinstein Company, a distributor with a singular talent for pushing its pictures into Oscar contention, it’s not a stretch to imagine the eyes of the nation focused on Oakland.

That would be a greater triumph than Coogler could have envisioned. The Oakland native aspired once upon a time to be a doctor, until his creative writing professor at Saint Mary’s College suggested he might have a talent for writing screenplays. Coogler eventually transferred to Sacramento State on a football scholarship, but his perspective had been permanently altered by that insightful advice. He took every film class he could, then attended graduate school in film at the University of Southern California, where he made a couple of well-received short films.

Coogler now lives in Richmond and works as a counselor at the Youth Guidance Center in San Francisco, but his world didn’t shrink when he returned to the Bay Area. He was able to enlist Forest Whitaker as a producer, which led to the casting of Academy Award–winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as Grant’s mother, Wanda. Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), in the all-important, warts-and-all lead role, wins the audience’s trust (though not always our sympathy) by conveying Grant’s charm, conniving, and calculation in equal measure. Coogler makes the wise decision not to glamorize or excuse Grant’s womanizing, lying, and petty crimes, a choice that has the effect of complicating the audience’s response to the central character.

The film’s depiction of Grant as fallible—as human, that is—adds to the climax on the BART platform that’s so harrowing as to be almost unbearable. Whatever Grant’s sins were in life, that pattern of behavior assuredly did not warrant his death. Now, Fruitvale Station suggests (in what may be poetic license) that not only did coincidence and bad luck play a part on the train and the platform that night, but ultimately Grant’s life choices were limited. Racism, fear, his past (that prison record and the lack of a college degree), his circle of underachieving acquaintances, and the lack of opportunities afforded by an indifferent society inexorably played a part in his fate.

Fruitvale Station will no doubt be a flashpoint for discussion in Oakland and the East Bay, providing further incentive to see the film. Writer-director Coogler, at the outset of what promises to be a splendid career, has made a tangible contribution to the prospect that the tragic and unnecessary killing of Oscar Grant won’t be repeated. Can a movie make a difference? We’ll see. l

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Michael Fox is The Monthly’s film critic, and a film journalist, instructor, and programmer.

 

 

Michael B. Jordan stars in Fruitvale Station which opens this month. Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.