Timing often plays a major role in determining whether a topical film finds a substantial audience. In the case of Fruitvale Station, the true story of Oscar Grant — who was shot and killed by a Transit Police officer while in custody and laying face down on an Oakland, California train platform on New Year’s Day, 2009 — no one would have hoped for the extra attention the film will surely receive from the proximity of its release to the recent resolution of George Zimmerman’s criminal trial in the death of Trayvon Martin. That probably won’t keep Fruitvale Station from becoming a political football instead of a must-see movie in the weeks ahead. Which is a shame, because this debut feature from 27-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler is the first authentic Oscar contender among American films released so far this year, and it’s almost August.
Fruitvale Station begins with actual cell phone footage of Grant’s tragic and all-too-public shooting. What follows is as far from a documentary as movies get. The film traces the last day of Grant’s life from the moment he wakes up until he finds himself lying helplessly on that platform, foregoing politics to paint a complex and believable portrait of a flawed young man who’s truly a product of his time. Fruitvale Station should make a star of Michael B. Jordan, an actor most familiar from roles in TV series like The Wire and Friday Night Lights. As Grant, Jordan delivers the kind of pitch-perfect work that leads directly to major movie careers. Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar two years ago for her work in The Help, is almost as effective as Grant’s long-suffering mother, Wanda Johnson.
Fruitvale Station won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But the film’s early relationship with Sundance is more significant. Coogler was invited to develop his movie at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, the same fount of cinematic support on which Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar relied while crafting Beasts of the Southern Wild. Despite its minuscule 20-day shooting schedule and obviously tiny budget, Fruitvale Station possesses a rare narrative strength and sureness of hand. It’ll break your heart, and that may be the greatest political act of all.