At 2:15 a.m. Jan.1, 2009, a young unarmed black man was shot and killed by a policeman at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, Calif. His name was Oscar Julius Grant III, and his horrific murder was captured on cell phones by numerous eyewitnesses. The new film, "Fruitvale Station," traces the last 24 hours of his life.
In the shocking opening scene, actual footage of the crime plays out on screen. Suddenly, the film flashes back to the morning of Dec. 31, 2008. Twenty-two-year-old Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is lying in bed with his partner, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), discussing how he's determined to clean up his act — no more selling weed or cheating. He promises to be there for her and his beloved 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
It's his mother Wanda's (Octavia Spencer) birthday, and Oscar spends most of the day preparing for the celebration. In a flashback, we see Wanda visiting Oscar in San Quentin. The love between them is overwhelmingly evident, but she demands that he change the direction in which his life is heading. Oscar heeds her advice.
After the birthday party, Oscar and Sophina head into San Francisco with friends to ring in the New Year. Wanda convinces him to take the train instead of driving. On the ride back, a skirmish erupts. The police intervene, and one throws Oscar face down on the pavement, cuffing him and ultimately shooting him in the back at close range. The rest is history.
First-time director/writer Ryan Coogler does an extraordinary job portraying Oscar as an antihero with a heart of gold. He wisely chose to focus on humanizing Oscar rather than concentrating on the shooting and its aftermath. He manages to have his audience rooting for this young man throughout the film even though we're fully aware of the tragic outcome.
"Fruitvale Station" is gripping on every level. The acting is top-notch. Octavia Spencer is devastatingly superb as the mother who wants her son to reach his potential. She admits after personally meeting Wanda that she "was humbled by her strength." Michael B. Jordan's incredible performance demonstrates a perfect balance between Oscar's past indiscretions and his future aspirations. He humanizes him and we, in turn, empathize.
Coogler filmed on location, including the exact spot where Oscar Julius Grant III's life ended. The officer who so brutally murdered him claimed that he had mistakenly grabbed his gun instead of his taser. He received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter, in which he served 11 months.
In the parting shot, actual footage shows the devastation on the face of Tatiana at a memorial service for her father. His mother, Wanda, after having seen "Fruitvale Station," commented, " He didn't deserve to be murdered." Sadly, it seems all too familiar.
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