December 31, 2008, was a momentous day for San Francisco Bay Area resident Oscar Grant, and now — with its edgy, overpowering dramatization in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station — for American cinema. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American ex-con and former drug dealer with a girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) who loves him despite one brief infidelity; a 4-year-old daughter named Tatiana (Ariana Neal); and no job. He was late for work at a supermarket one too many times. Now his back is against the wall.
Jordan gives a major performance. His Oscar is not a wholly admirable man. His motor runs fast; he acts before he thinks; he’s quick to get riled up. But he’s trying to grow up. He reaches out to strangers. He’s a dutiful son to an attentive (but easily fed up) mother (Octavia Spencer). He wins you over in an early scene: While driving, he calls his mom, who asks if he’s talking on a headset. He says yes—a lie. Then he pulls over and slides the phone over his ear into his tight cap.
Oscar inhabits a very public culture, an interdependent village of friends and family. What Coogler — in his first film — does harrowingly well is show how that village is full of dangerous corners, how every encounter has the potential to get ugly fast. It’s no one in particular’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault. Police are unnervingly ubiquitous. Watching Fruitvale Station, I thought of the “stop and frisk” policy of Mayor Bloomberg, who — no matter what you think of him — has an empathy gap. He doesn’t understand the cumulative effect of the presumption of guilt on people who already feel disenfranchised.
The end is as terrible as you fear — but it always feels preventable, not inevitable. Here are African-American men who’ve endured enough mistreatment and cops who rather than defuse a tense situation seem eager to escalate it. No one will let anything go. And so it goes. Fruitvale Station will rock your world — and, if the life of Oscar Grant means anything, compel you to work to change it.
This review originally appeared in the July 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.