It is the story of the 2009 New Year’s Day murder of an unarmed young black Oakland man at the hands of a transit cop who mixed up his gun and his Taser at the train station for which the film is named. In a classic Hollywood twist, “Fruitvale” is rolling out in theaters nationwide during a time of deep racial and political divide. Trayvon Martin is not only fresh in our hearts and headlines, but the aftermath of his murder presents a current tentpole against which the film will undoubtedly benefit. The discussion is already in session, and depending on which side you stand, “Fruitvale” probably confirms your conviction.
Bolstered by an arrestingly honest script and superb cast, perhaps the film’s most important achievement is its reconstruction of a complex, whole, young man. Embodied brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan, the real-life – though now deceased – Oscar Grant is nuanced and true-to-life. That core, that stark portrayal of humanity is then wrapped expertly in layers of challenging circumstances.
Before he is a dead body at the center of a crime scene, Oscar Grant is someone we can all recognize: a son of Oakland, a father of a young daughter. He is young and out of focus, like many 22-year-olds that frequently float across our paths. He is tangled in the web of underemployment, an all-too-relevant sign of the times these past few recessive years. That familiar framework is bundled with explosive emotional outbursts, yes – maybe even anger – and desperation. He is black, and in real life, black men are rarely afforded the benefit of a full range of emotions. Yet this cinematic sketch dignifies Oscar with a somber sum and many messy parts.