Fruitvale Station is one of those self-assured, steady-handed, stylishly executed movies that both transcends and exemplifies its subject matter. It's a distillation of one man's life into an examination of the day he's killed, and the killing becomes a nexus of sorrow that allows us to understand what happened without outrage, even though what happened is completely outrageous. That's what really great movies can do: burn away the peripherals, the politics, even some of the facts, so we can have access to a point of view that doesn't bark or bite but somehow lives. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant lives, at least for a few hours, and we have access to that life. We see him cleaning up his bedroom, losing his job, answering fish-fry concerns with help from his grandma, trying to help an injured dog, picking up his daughter at school, going out on the town on New Year's Eve... The movie's chronology and pace have a sort of airy, dreamy realism, but all of it is anchored by the knowledge (given to us in real footage from the actual shooting) of Oscar's killing.
Oscar was shot by a policeman in Oakland, California on New Year's Day. The shooting caused riots and revolts across the area.
First-time director Ryan Coogler takes on the controversy but doesn't use it as fuel for anger, but as a microscope to envision Oscar's interior and exterior life. The lighting of the film is blue-sky and chrome, with a darkness on the edges burnished with holiday lights. The houses and streets have a deadpan solidity to them, lived-in but also ghostly. Each scene is a link in a chain, and Coogler is completely in control of what the chain pulls. This is director to watch. He knows how to dramatize while also pushing the drama out of its preciousness. He accesses real life but shapes reality into story.
Michael B. Jordan's Oscar is an exercise in effortless grace and strength about to lose its footing. He's pissed and not trying not to be, and many times throughout the film you recognize that he is triumphing over the past just by living in the moment, helping people, joking around. You could label Oscar a "thug" or whatever, but Jordan allows you to understand that the label is meaningless once you enter into Oscar's orbit. He's just trying to figure shit out. Octavia Spencer plays Oscar's mom with an exhausted love and dignity that doesn't seem forced or abstracted, just simply there.
In fact the whole movie is an exercise in "being there," stripping away style to create its own stylishness. From the beginning to the end, this movie is a work of art. It allows you access to an overheated debate and then cools down the situation to the point you can feel the immensity of the loss without having to locate a villain, or even a hero.