In the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009, two days before I moved back to Missoula from San Francisco, a 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer in the Fruitvale BART station in front of dozens of witnesses, many of whom captured the whole thing on their phones. Grant, a young black man, was unarmed and restrained by another officer. He was facedown on the floor. I seem to have a vague memory of hearing about a shooting at the time, and about subsequent riots in Oakland. It didn't stick in my mind. I was on my way out and too tied up in my own life to pay much attention.
One thing humans aren't super awesome at is paying attention.
Ryan Coogler's debut feature film, Fruitvale Station, dramatizes the last day of Grant's life. The first scene opens with actual cellphone footage, then flashes back to Grant, who starts his morning in a little apartment with his girlfriend and daughter. It's all pretty straightforward from there, as Coogler takes us through Grant's struggles with escaping his criminal past and finding a fresh start with his family.
The result is a provocative but far from perfect film. The best momentsthe real momentsare soft and quiet, where invested actors breathe big life into casual details. Michael B. Johnson ("Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire") convincingly plays Grant, demonstrating formidable range from tender to violent emotions, and delivering a truly complex character. The supporting cast is solid, managing to work the camera with a light-enough touch to make more-or-less underdeveloped secondary characters feel full and real.
But Coogler tries way too hard way too often. The raw number of isolated heavy hands piling up through the narrative makes it tricky to stay lost inside the story. There's this brutal scene where a dog gets killed by a negligent driver, and as soon as you feel the horrible feeling that anyone with half a soul is going to feel, you then suddenly start to suspect that you've just been manipulated. It breaks the spell. Coogler uses the dog as a symbol and storytelling device. As a viewer you don't want your eyes to roll the minute they start to tear up.
Then there's the girl Oscar meets in the morning and the flashback-introduced ex-con, both of whom show up again all too conveniently that night on the train. Overwrought decisions, such as Oscar dumping a bag of weed into the ocean to indicate his tragically ironic desire to reform, caricature an otherwise genuine humanity that pulses through the story.
But as the final act opens, everything wonderful and right about Coogler's filmmaking comes back into focus. The reel plunges into an emotional space that finally feels earned, and you're almost able to see the earlier flaws in a new light. Events like this happen every day. Negligence kills dogs, people randomly encounter people from their past, strangers who just met reconnect abruptly. Coincidences are hard to handle in storytelling not because they're absurd, but because they really do happen. Sometimes you're walking along minding your own business and life drags you into a seemingly random chain of events. Sometimes people get killed for no reason at all, or reasons that can't ever be fully sussed out. The dramatization of coincidence is a reminder that our fragile lives can break open at any moment.
The Bay Area was an interesting place to live at the end of 2008. We were just about to inaugurate our first black president, and celebrating NYE in the Castro was pretty wild despite Prop 8's temporary victory. The shooting of Oscar Grant in an environment of civil rights consciousness isn't something I should have missed. I wasn't paying attention. And now, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial, here comes Coogler's film.
Oscar Grant's story could have been a documentary, rather than a dramatic narrative. Coogler's intention, however, was to direct our attention toward the underprivileged side of this tale at the risk of further polarizing the problem. The question of whether Grant's death was due to negligence or racial prejudice is too important to leave solely in one arena, and Fruitvale Station could have gone further in awakening our attention. I would have liked to see Coogler take us not only through Grant's day, but also through the day of the policeman who shot him. It would have revealed more completely how these different worlds can converge in tragedy and it would've been a braver film that way. Harder, but braver.
Fruitvale Station continues at the Wilma Theatre.