At approximately 9.15am on January 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III died on the operating table of Highland Hospital in Oakland, California.
Several hours earlier, the young black man and his friends were detained by police at Fruitvale Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that serves San Francisco.
During chaotic scenes on the platform, one of the officers shot Grant in the back as he was being detained face down on the ground. Footage captured by witnesses on mobile phones and cameras sparked protests across the city.
Fruitvale Station dramatises the final 24 hours in the life of Grant (Michael B Jordan), recounted in chronological order except for a single emotionally devastating flashback in which the young man recalls a visit from his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) to San Quentin Correctional Facility to hammer home the damage he is doing to his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
On December 31, 2008, Oscar takes Tatiana to school then drops off his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) at work. He heads to the grocery store to pick up two crabs from the fish counter for his mother’s birthday and helps a customer (Ahna O’Reilly) with a cooking dilemma by putting her in touch with his Grandma (Marjorie Shears).
He also collars store manager Emi (Victor Toman) and we learn that Oscar lost his job two weeks ago and hasn’t told Sophina.
“For me to hire you back, that means I have to let someone else go. Someone who’s never showed up late once. I like you man, but I can’t do that,” explains Emi.
Bristling with frustration, Oscar stops briefly at a petrol station, where he witnesses a stray pitbull being knocked down.
“Help!” screams Oscar as he cradles the dying animal.
No one answers, foreshadowing the senseless loss of precious life in the film’s closing moments.
Fruitvale Station is a gripping portrait of a flawed man, who struggles to rebuild bridges and atone for his sins but always seems to be dragged back into the mire. Like the train that carried Oscar and his friends home from the New Year’s Eve fireworks, Cooger’s film has a relentless sense of momentum and won’t be deviated from its tragic course, no matter how hard we will it.
Jordan is terrific in the lead role – charming and volatile, cocksure yet desperately unsure how he will pay next month’s rent.
Diaz is luminous and Oscar winner Spencer is mesmerising, staring at her boy’s lifeless body and sobbing, “I told him to catch the BART. I didn’t know they were gonna hurt him.”
Cooger opens with footage of the actual shooting and he retains the gritty realism in acutely observed scenes of family life.
His script speaks from the heart and touches and rends ours with every word.
By Damon Smith