There’s a startling explosiveness to Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed in 2009 by transit police in Oakland, Calif. Free with hugs for his mother (Octavia Spencer) and an attentive father to his own child (Ariana Neal), Jordan’s Oscar nonetheless erupts with a snarling fury when challenged by figures from his shady past.
Yet this isn’t a Jekyll and Hyde performance, in which one good side struggles against the bad. What’s remarkable about Jordan’s portrayal – and the film itself – is the way both understand that good and bad are intertwined within the human heart.
That’s not what we usually hear in the wake of something like Fruitvale. The common narratives after such events are of the either/or variety. Either Oscar was a hoodlum whose disruption of the peace led to his death or he was a racially profiled innocent whose promising life ended too soon. (The Trayvon Martin shooting produced a similarly binary response.) Fruitvale Station, though a drama, takes place in a more real world, one in which a 22-year-old like Oscar can be both loving and angry, can be both a doting father and a desperate drug dealer. Can be, in fact, human.
What’s remarkable about Jordan’s portrayal is the way it understands that good and bad are intertwined within the human heart.
A debut feature from writer-director Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station reminded me of the humanist tradition of Italian postwar neorealism. Though populated by flawed figures – 1948’s The Bicycle Thieves turns on larceny – these movies put the damaged dignity of their protagonists at the forefront. And just as Bicycle Thieves employed nonprofessional actors, Fruitvale has its own methods of evoking a sense of realism. The movie opens with actual, mobile-phone footage of the shooting. (What lingers, aside from the gunshot itself, is the paralyzing helplessness that hangs in the air.) The narrative proper then largely traces the 24 hours leading up to the incident, with occasional time stamps on the screen to remind us that the minutes in Oscar’s life are being numbered.
Oscar spends most of this day text messaging or making calls on his mobile phone. (In a touch I had never seen before, Coogler puts the copy of Oscar’s texts up on the screen, emphasizing their intimacy and immediacy.) Oscar’s time is largely spent cajoling friends and family (including a very good Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend), but he also makes a crucial decision to dump a bag of marijuana that he was going to sell into the bay. His past may not be this easy to shake, however. The movie’s definitive scene may be the one in which Oscar stops by the grocery store where he was recently fired in hopes of winning his job back. He’s charming and flirty with a shopper who needs help trying to decide what to buy for a Southern-style fish fry, even calling his grandmother to give the shopper advice. In the midst of that conversation, though, he pulls aside his former manager and asks to be rehired. When he’s rebuffed, he turns threatening and instinctively grabs the manager by the arm. In a matter of moments, Oscar has gone from angel to hood.
The result of such a complicated characterization? Fruitvale Station carries far more power than it would if it was a righteously indignant diatribe that presented Oscar Grant as a saint. In its own quietly insistent way, the picture takes the sort of tragedies that have inflamed a nation and been co-opted for all sorts of political purposes – tragedies from Fruitvale to Sanford, Fla. – and brings them back down to human scale. By portraying Oscar as an authentic human being, someone with the same flawed nobility we all share, the movie repositions the entire conversation around this and other instances of racially motivated wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter whether this was a “good kid” or not; when an injustice is committed, we can’t let questions of character influence our pursuit of what’s right. What matters – and what Fruitvale Station emphasizes – is that when an unarmed and unthreatening 22-year-old is held down by officers of the law and fatally shot, it’s all of humanity’s loss.