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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Oscar Grant’s Last Stop

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The Trayvon Martin case wasn’t the first public outcry over an African American youth who died under controversial circumstances at an alleged crime scene. The killing of Oscar Grant by a transit policeman in Oakland, Calif., on New Year’s Day 2009 sparked outrage in the surrounding community. The wavering cell phone footage that opens Fruitvale Station, a succinct and moving story of Grant’s life and death, appears to show harsh words between African American men and transit cops. Grant’s unruly arrest climaxes for no good reason with his summary execution after an officer draws his pistol and fires point blank into his back. Grant was 22.

Michael B. Jordan gives the doomed protagonist a sympathetic portrayal. Sweet-tempered if sometimes sullen, a dutiful son but slack employee, a doting father but an unfaithful lover, Grant was dealt a slender hand of cards at birth. As a black male, he is marked for suspicion and stuck in a cycle of low wage jobs and low expectations. Drug dealing affords a more lucrative payday than the supermarket, and although he conceals his goods from his daughter, he has already done time at San Quentin.

A penitentiary flashback of racist animosity among prisoners foreshadows the tragic ending. Grant is attacked on New Year’s Eve as he rides home on the rapid transit. The celebratory mood among the multi-racial passengers is shattered when a skinhead, fellow ex-con runs into him in the crowded train car. The police are summoned. The ugliness escalates.

In his debut feature film, writer-director Ryan Coogler allows the story to speak for itself without the heavy drumbeat of intrusive messages or political rhetoric. Shooting many scenes in intense close-ups, Coogler brings the audience up close into Grant’s world, where his family and friends struggle with hard circumstances and limited options. “I’d like to start over fresh, but shit ain’t working out,” he declares hours before death.

In Fruitvale Station’s account, Grant had no intention of getting in trouble on his way home from the New Year’s Eve fireworks; likewise, the police weren’t laying in wait for a victim. However, racial profiling was probably at work. The skinhead antagonist is shown as slipping away while Grant and his black friends are ordered against the platform wall. In an era of shout radio, where outrageous outbursts of anger have been elevated into acceptable forms of expression, no one keeps cool. Grant mouths off and is uncooperative. The cops are belligerent from the get-go.

Composed of many well-chosen incidents, Fruitvale Station is unlike so many poorly paced indie films bloated with irrelevant details. It moves along efficiently, making its story on the ongoing legacy of race in America all the more impactful.

Opens Friday, July 26 at the Downer Theatre.

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