You see one of the cellphone recordings of the murder of Oscar Grant III at the very beginning of Ryan Coogler’s raw and exceptional “Fruitvale Station.” The very last second of the footage has been lopped off.
The transit cop who killed the New Year’s Eve celebrant claimed that Grant resisted arrest and made a suspicious move. And that, from about 20 yards away, is what we see. The cop reached for his taser, he said, pulled out his gun by mistake and shot Grant in the back while his hands were cuffed. He died in the hospital the next day.
What I’ve seen in the best-known cellphone recording of the incident is what looks like a tell-tale movement and facial expression by the cop a second after you hear the shot: The cop’s head snaps up from looking at the victim and looks directly at the bystander filming the incident 20 or so yards away. It’s almost impossible not to read that head snap and terror-stricken glance in the camera’s direction as a sudden guilty spasm meaning “Oh my God, did that camera get THAT?”
The answer is a resounding yes. Which is why he was, at least, convicted of manslaughter. He wound up serving only 11 months.
There were riots in the Bay Area over Grant’s murder. The national release of “Fruitvale Station” after the George Zimmerman verdict and President Obama’s moving comments about it couldn’t possibly be more timely. But then, tragically, one could argue that even in 2013 there isn’t ever really a time when the national release of this film wouldn’t be timely.
And that, I think, is the whole point of 27-year-old first-time director Ryan Coogler leaving off that final second of cellphone footage from the opening of his film.
This is not a movie about that transit cop’s guilt or innocence. That’s another subject.
This is a movie about the way lives are lived, specifically the final day in the life of Grant, a very imperfect young man of 22 trying to do better and straighten out his life. He only took the train to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve in the first place because his mother didn’t want him to drink and drive. (When talking to him on the phone in the car, she insisted he pull over and put on his headphones, too, to keep his driving hands free.)
Oscar and his girlfriend only went out with partying friends that night because she wanted to. According to the film, he was making noises beforehand about wanting to stay home and celebrate.
The result was tragic. And bracing for two cities, Oakland and San Francisco.
Writer and director Coogler wants us to understand Grant. He was a sweet young guy but no saint. He loved his mother but he had a quick, vicious, self-defensive temper sharpened by minor prison stretches. He was an adoring father to his young daughter but his repeated late arrivals at work caused him to lose his job.
He was making money dealing weed (he’s played by Michael B. Jordan of “The Wire”). We see him stash a huge plastic bag in the closet, but at a crucial moment we see him emptying the bag into San Francisco Bay, even though he’s in acute financial need. It’s a story we can only surmise, but no less powerful for that.
Coogler’s film is about a young man having a typical New Year’s Eve – a mix of celebration (it’s his mother’s birthday as well as New Year’s Eve) and passing life contemplation until his temper and his lock-down past suddenly pull him into a fight aboard the celebrating BART train to San Francisco.
The transit cops step in. The train stops at the Fruitvale Station. The transit cops pull him and his friends off, corral them next to the track.
Oscar’s objections infuriate the keyed-up cops. And then the calamity.
And all of it – like every bit of this film – is filmed with documentary-style verisimilitude. In the case of the film, though, the apparent artlessness conceals just how much art from young Coogler is involved.
This is close to a brilliant piece of work – a film document that seems to come right from the streets but is, in fact, a very careful re-enactment starring Jordan and Academy Award- winner Octavia Spencer as his mother.
The film was grandfathered into being by Forest Whitaker using his influence.
The importance of the film after the Zimmerman trial couldn’t be more obvious. It’s an unsparing, i.e. not always flattering, look at a very tragic victim of the facts of black life in America.
The film’s final shot is about the most heart-rending victim of all.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: R for violence, language, drugs and sex.
The Lowdown: A re-creation of the murder of Oscar Grant in the Fruitvale Station of the BART Line that rocked the Bay Area four years ago.