"Fruitvale Station" is a movie that tells us unfortunate things that we already know: Race matters, justice is imperfect and confusion has a way of leading to violence. Based on a true story, the movie follows 22-year-old Oscar Grant on what turns out to be the last day of his life. This is no secret, even without prior knowledge of the case. The movie opens with cell-phone footage taken on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., of a row of black men sitting against a wall with police bearing down over them. It is shortly after midnight on New Year's Day 2009, and the platform is crowded with onlookers. An officer rolls one of the men over onto his stomach. There is shouting, there is cursing, there is something being removed from the officer's pocket. A gun goes off and the screen turns black.
Now that we know how Oscar dies, the movie tries to reconstruct a story of how he lived — to make what feels abstractly devastating at the beginning of the movie feel personally devastating when we come back to it at the end. It's a big task. Nobody wants to be lectured on the tragedy of obviously tragic events, or made to feel guilty about circumstances beyond their control. Thankfully, the movie does not do that. There are moments of absurd heavy-handedness, but also moments of poetry so ephemeral and true that I momentarily forgot the way it was all going to end.
We learn plenty about Oscar in the first 10 minutes: He is horny, irresponsible, casual and sweet-natured, but has a lurking temper that we can easily understand might get him into real trouble. Lying in bed next to Sophina, his girlfriend and mother of his child, he apologizes for cheating and tries to assure her he will not be fucking with that bitch again. He promises forever, and when Sophina rightly asks what he means, I almost thought he was going to pull the ring out right there, but no: He leans in and tries to make out with her. Their daughter, Tatiana, knocks, at which point he stuffs a gallon ziplock bag of weed into a closet, then invites her in to lie down with them. At 10 minutes after midnight, lying next to his daughter and baby momma in a tiny, disheveled bedroom, he texts his mother, wishing her a happy birthday, with four exclamation points.
In short, we learn that Oscar is a sympathetic person, with obvious aspirations and more obvious flaws. As the movie unfolds, we find out he has lost his job at a supermarket for showing up late, and simultaneously trying to give up selling weed, not because he's in any acute danger but because selling weed is not something that someone who wants to get his life on track does. It is New Year's Eve, and Oscar, like so many people, has stale prospects but is hoping for a fresh start.
Picking up some crabs for his mom's birthday party, he meets a genteel white girl named Katie, who is struggling to figure out what kind of fish is best for frying. It's for a friend she wants to cook for, she explains sheepishly. "Is he black?" Oscar asks. "He's white, but he knows a lot of black people," she says, an almost extraterrestrially weird conversation designed to get us to understand that white or black, Oscar just wants to be helpful.
Katie ends up on the phone with his Grandma Bonnie, who teaches her a thing or two while Oscar tracks down his now former boss in one of the aisles and asks for his job back. Low music throbs, and we can see Oscar is getting angry: "I need this fucking job," he says, grabbing the manager's arm. Played by Michael B. Jordan (Wallace on "The Wire," quarterback Vince Howard on "Friday Night Lights"), Oscar is broad but boyish, with generous eyes and a nice smile. He seems scared by his own temper, or unable to fully carry it. This is crucial: While the movie suggests he can get angry enough to throw a punch, for the most part it presents him as exceedingly laid back. Real violence — the kind done to him in the final scenes of the movie — seems mostly foreign to him.