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On New Year’s Day, 2009, a man named Oscar Grant was murdered by a police officer on the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station, in Oakland. He was pinned down to the ground and unarmed. They shot him in the back. Fruitvale is a dramatization of the last day of Grant’s life. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at Sundance this year.

Michael B. Jordan plays Grant, and he’s astounding. Oscar has been in and out of both prison and several jobs, but he is a decent human being when it gets down to it. He’s kind to those around him and devoted to his young daughter. Jordan embodies both his sensitivity and the temper that continually sabotages him. So many media depictions of this kind of person, a young black man who’s had trouble with the law, fall prey to stereotypes. But there’s none of that here. Oscar is a fully-realized person, and that makes him relatable even to a viewer who has no frame of reference for his situation. And that means that his death evokes even more outrage than it would have if the film had portrayed him as a saint.

All the people around Oscar are completely drawn in as well. Even characters with just a bit of screen time, such as Oscar’s friends, or people he casually encounters over the course of his last day, feel real. But it’s Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer as his mother who truly stand out. The way they play off Jordan feels utterly authentic, and their reactions to his shocking death make it all the more heartbreaking.

The movie begins with the Fruitvale shooting, shown through actual cell phone camera footage taken by a bystander. The story then rewinds to the previous morning. Most of the plot is not really a plot at all. It’s a recreation of what really happened to Oscar Grant on the last day of 2008, with some creative interpretation. And yet every normal activity that Oscar pursues – buying things for his mother’s birthday party, dropping off and picking up his daughter from daycare, even casual conversations with his friends – takes on a special significance in light of the fact that this is the last day of his life.

And then, after a night of New Year’s celebration in San Francisco, Oscar abruptly falls victim to a horrible, senseless crime. In a heartbeat, all the political rhetoric around police brutality and institutional racism falls away. Oscar embodies thousands of other people similar to him, who have also been subjected to injustice by the state. The film is simultaneously apolitical and righteously angry.

Director Ryan Coogler favors a very straightforward style. There are no flourishes in the cinematography or the editing. It’s a naturalistic approach that’s more than a little reminiscent of The Wire, the show that gave Jordan his breakthrough role. Again, though, this actually amplifies the effect that the movie is going for. Instead of overplaying the biggest moments, it presents them with an unvarnished eye. The characters and their situations are able to work on their own, devastating terms.

Some critics have raised objection to the fact that the movie is dramatizing real events. Their concern is understandable, especially since the incident in question is so recent. A question of responsibility arises here – many people will likely watch this movie and believe that they now know everything they need to about the Oscar Grant shooting. That would be fallacious and potentially dangerous, but it also wouldn’t be the fault of the film or the filmmakers. Their loyalty must ultimately be to their story. They used something real as a jumping-off point to make a work about the fragility of life that would hopefully cause audiences to think about the living conditions of people like Oscar Grant. True, they changed the facts of the case in the process, but they did so in the service of a greater truth.

The cumulative effect is that Fruitvale lands on the viewer like a punch in the gut. In working around and through a singular tragedy, this movie speaks to the preciousness of life in a very subtle but powerful way. Since the Weinstein Company has picked it up for distribution, it’ll be making the rounds of the awards circuit this time next year, and it deserves the attention. It’s one of the best films to come out of this year’s Sundance.