A version of this review appears in this week's Portland Observer: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2013/jul/24/provocation-transit/?page=1
In the wee hours of New Years' Day, 2009, an unarmed 22-year-old man lying face down on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif. was shot in the back by a transit police officer. Oscar Grant -- "Osc" to his friends -- died a few hours later, leaving behind a four-year-old daughter, a long-time girlfriend, and a family who loved him.
"FRUITVALE STATION" (8.5), which opens in the Portland area on Friday, begins with grainy footage of the shooting captured by one of the many passengers who witnessed it and recorded it on their cell phones.
Although it's hard to make out exactly what is happening (and that is a matter of volatile debate), it is clear that several black men are being detained by white transit officers, and one in particular is being treated so roughly that the others are protesting. And then the shot.
The film, which has already won major awards at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, arrives at an opportune time. Its story strikes chords that resonate with the national debate over the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin -- but not because it analyzes or makes sense of events that feel all too familiar to many of us. First-time writer director Ryan Coogler, an African-American Bay-Area native who is now about the same age Grant would have been had he lived, does not set out to make a documentary or write an op-ed.
What he does instead is, in a sense, more unusual: He takes much of what is known about Grant and gives us a necessarily fictionalized but arguably more deeply true portrait of his last day. In this retelling, Grant is not just a statistic. He is not a hero, or a symbol, or a thug who brought tragedy on himself. He is a complex person with hopes and loves, good intentions and yet real reason to doubt if he would live into them.
He has served time for dealing drugs and has been lying to his girlfriend Sophina and his mother about having lost his job, yet he is devoted to his daughter and still aims to please his mom. And there is real connectedness with Sophina that might yet have stood the test of time.
It doesn't really matter if all these details were really true of Oscar Grant. What Coogler succeeds in doing is to make you see a real person who, whatever his failings, did not deserve to die that night.
His portrait is a marvel of specificity, an insider's lived-in look at life for many African-Americans. We see his youthfulness, a mixture of good-heartedness and impetuosity, his tenderness and bravado. We also see that the world he lives in is treacherous.
Yes, not all of his choices are good ones. But too often real risk seems terribly close, never more so than in the confrontation with transit police that quickly turns ugly -- so ugly that it is hard to imagine that Grant could have prevented the outcome.
Watching Grant's last day is the more poignant because you know how it will end. It's a day filled with choices, most of them mundane -- he drops Sophina off at work, plays with his daughter, picks up items for his mother's birthday party, lets family members believe he is going to a job he has already lost, then comes clean with Sophina.
When we learn of a shooting like this -- as we do too often -- the person's life is already over; it feels fitting to accord this quality of attention to the life and possibilities that were lost.
The scene depicting events on the subway platform necessarily chooses a version of events that many dispute. But it is a story that will feel familiar to African-Americans and other minorities.
The police seem to stoke the conflict and the young men's resistance, though unwise, seems understandable, even inevitable. And because I had grown to care about Oscar long before he entered that train for the last time, I cried tears of fear and horror long before that final gunshot, as I watched officers order him from the train and as the situation with transit police quickly escalates.
The film convincingly demonstrates how quickly and horribly things can go wrong for a young black man in a confrontation with law enforcement.
Last Friday, President Obama made an attempt to describe to white Americans the experiences that shape black Americans' reading of the George Zimmerman verdict. His remarks are a fitting companion to Coogler's film, which invites us to sit for 85 minutes with a story that sinks deeper into everyday African-American experience than most of what the media gives us.
The film gently lures audiences into investing in the life of a young black man who they might well write off or shy away from if they met him on the street, and then to taste in some small way the little provocations that chip away at his dignity and demand of him more restraint and equanimity than his age and experience could possibly have taught him.
Though not a fun diversion, "Fruitvale Station" feels important; it rounds out the picture of American life. If this film leaves you devastated, as it did me, it is because that is an appropriate response.