By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Fruitvale Station” isn’t a great film. I’m not even certain it’s a good one.
But it is an important film. And its timing — i.e., right as the George Zimmerman trial concludes — makes it doubly, triply, quadrup-ly important.
Because right here, we see what we already know: Trayvon Martin isn’t the only one. Never was. And, alas, never will be.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 2009, a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a transit cop. At that moment, Grant was handcuffed and facedown on the subway platform at the BART stop called Fruitvale Station.
The office claimed he was reaching for his Taser, but grabbed his gun by mistake.
By such mistakes are lives ended.
Rookie filmmaker Ryan Coogler has made a heartfelt, occasionally wrenching film: 24 hours in the life of someone who’s about to die.
We know that because the film begins with screams and grainy cell-phone shots of a scuffle. So we know someone’s been shot going in. What Coogler chooses to do is show us a kind of “24 Hours” in Grant’s life before he leaves it.
Superbly played by Michael B. Jordan of “Friday Night Lights” fame, Grant is hanging with his mom (Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winner from “The Help” whose specialty was African-American Pie) and some family before heading out to enjoy the New Year’s Eve fireworks. Don’t drive, Mom cautions. Take the train. It’ll be safer.
Because we know what everyone in that room doesn’t, a chill goes up your spine.
Coogler is careful to show that, while Grant may be a world-class charmer, he’s certainly no saint. He messes around on his girlfriend with whom he already has a 4-year-old daughter. He’s done some jail time for drugs. When he pleads to get his job back at a supermarket, the manager says the position’s already been filled — by someone who comes on time.
This is not a violent confrontation (the one between Grant and his former boss). A lesser filmmaker might’ve jacked up the odds: you know, make the manager a racist brute along the lines of Danny Aiello in “Do the Right Thing.” But no, the guy is just a guy and if he hadn’t already hired someone else, he probably would’ve taken Grant back (charm goes a long way in supermarket sales, too).
Still, that’s just one more closed door in Grant’s increasingly inevitable appointment in Fruitvale.
Another thing Coogler shows us, intentionally or not, is how Grant is essentially surrounded by women: his mom, his granny, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s mom, an aunt, his little girl. There are men around, but they, too, seem afloat in this embracing sea of estrogen.
Ultimately, you ask yourself, is “Fruitvale Station” a kind of a eulogy? And if so, are we meant to mourn the victim or our country?