Elegy for a Life

'Fruitvale Station' revisits the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant

In Fruitvale Station, Bay Area filmmaker Ryan Coogler insists Oscar Grant—shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009—was more than just a thug, and reminds knee-jerkers that being drunk and disorderly isn’t a capital crime.

Michael B. Jordan’s restrained portrayal of Oscar Grant affects even those who don’t want to be manipulated—who want to watch this story with unfogged eyes. Jordan gives us the charisma of the unlucky man from Hayward, a cherished father to his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal, a prodigy), someone who wanted to do right so badly that he tattooed the name of his church on his shoulders.

But we’re allowed to see the sinner in Grant. We can feel for this young man’s confusion and desperation. We follow him running errands on the last day of his life: bitter coincidence, it was his mother’s birthday. Octavia Spencer’s excellence in this role will dazzle those who remember how good she was in The Help; there’s iron-clad evenness in her voice when she uses the euphemism “taking your vacations” to describe her son’s period in prison.

Coogler has a sharp, clean 90-minute film with no fat on it. But the next level of filmmaking would have counterpointed Grant’s life with the story of Mehserle, played by Kevin Durand. In real life, the Napa-raised, SSU-educated Mehserle’s own wife was ready to give birth any minute—which mirrors Fruitvale Station‘s insistence on Grant as a loving father. Moreover, Mehserle had faced an armed passenger earlier that night, and is depicted as horrified after the shooting. I doubt that hardliners who want to believe that a cackling racist executed Grant for fun can be satisfied by the plausible explanation that in the heat of the moment Mehserle drew a gun instead of a taser.

But who could blame extremists? Fruitvale Station‘s release follows hard on the atrocity of the Travyon Martin case. Coogler sums up Grant’s story with a peaceful demonstration, not the nights of rage; the audience is left with tears instead of easy solutions. It might not help, but I wonder how much it costs to rename a BART station after a person.

‘Fruitvale Station’ opens Friday, July 26, at Summerfield Cinemas.