At 2:15 am on New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African-American man from Hayward, Calif., was pulled off a BART train by transit police, handcuffed and forced to the ground, then shot in the back. He died in a hospital hours later. That’s the reality of Fruitvale Station
, a dramatization of Grant’s last day alive, and freshman writer-director Ryan Coogler doesn’t want his film detached from it: He replays the grainy cellphone footage of the actual murder right up front. It’s a powerful framing device, lending the weight of the inevitable to a movie that moves through its scenes with restrained poignancy, but there’s a tradeoff: In flirting with the language of documentary, Coogler submits his creative license for extra scrutiny. Some critics have accused Fruitvale
of “sanctifying” Grant, picking at the details of his final hours. Did he actually comfort a stray pit bull after it was struck by a car? How often did he text his mother, really? Those questions, though, are smoke screens that detract from the conversation the film should be spurring, especially in light of recent events (and that’s not to mention its cinematic value). As in his previous roles on The Wire
and Friday Night Lights
, Michael B. Jordan plays Grant as a man quietly fighting against himself. True to life or not, he never feels less than real. But the ultimate question isn’t about the film’s accuracy. It’s about whether an unarmed black man, saint or sinner or otherwise, deserved to die facedown on a subway platform. Coogler starts the discussion with understated eloquence, but 87 minutes isn’t nearly enough to finish it.