By Arturo R. García
Fruitvale Station reminds us that the story of Oscar Grant is not over. And the world seemingly took a cue from that on Wednesday, when a federal court rejected his killer’s appeal, enabling his father to continue to seek justice in his name.
The man who shot Grant dead early on New Year’s Day 2009, former transit officer Johannes Mehserle, doesn’t say anything in writer/director Ryan Coogler’s account of the last hours of Grant’s life, a choice that not only allows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his loved ones more time to be seen and heard, but defines Mehserle as less character than calamity – a clumsy, confused-looking thing that happens. Both Grant and Mehserle are introduced from afar in the film’s opening seconds before shifting focus to follow Grant (sometimes, literally, from behind), pointing the viewer toward the same destination. But knowing what’s coming from a dramatic standpoint doesn’t diminish the visual impact.
Coogler’s documentary-style approach (minimal scoring and camera movements, eye-level contact with nearly everyone we encounter) not only calls upon him to deliver a layered protagonist but on Jordan to inhabit him. Thankfully, both live up to both the task and the glowing reviews they’ve received critically and on the festival circuit. It takes us less than 10 minutes to discover Jordan’s Oscar has cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Díaz) in the past and less than 15 to find he’s literally begging (albeit roughly) to hold on to his supermarket job. But we also see his humor, his heart — watch Oscar sparkle when he’s in the company of the couple’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) — and more than anything, his desire to start anew.
At the film’s pivotal moment, both of those impulses collide; we see Oscar veer from calling out the officers (led by a glowering Kevin Durand) for dragging him out of the train and throwing him and his friends to the ground to trying to calm his group and filming his captors’ badges before Mehserle (or his surrogate character) fires.
From there, the film shifts to follow Sophina and Grant’s mother Wanda, as Díaz and Spencer show their respective characters fraying despite themselves. After we see her withstand not just Oscar’s verbal abuse during his prison stint but the creeping possibility of his death, Wanda finally breaks upon seeing his body (“He doesn’t like to be alone … Just let me hug him.”) while Díaz’s eyes convey the terror of having to go from realizing that her love is dead to having to convey that to Tatiana.
The film ends by touching on the protests that followed Mehserle’s brief conviction on manslaughter charges and Grant’s emergence as a rallying figure for Oakland’s hip-hop community before showing us a glimpse of Tatiana at this year’s memorial for her father, a reminder that he is not alone in death — nor in being victimized by injustice. Mehserle’s character didn’t speak on film, but if Fruitvale calls attention to him (hopefully) having to answer for his deeds in a more thorough fashion … it can never be an “epilogue,” and certainly not a “happy ending.” But it will add to Coogler’s vow to do right by Grant and his loved ones. And maybe it will help another family escape being separated in this fashion.