Early on New Year's Day, 2009, 22-year-old Oakland, California resident Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a police officer following a disturbance on a packed train. The incident led to widespread rioting, with the African-American community and its sympathisers in arms against this apparent heinous crime. Even now, Grant's death remains a sensitive subject for discussion - comparable with the shootings here in the UK of Jean Charles de Menezes and, more recently, Mark Duggan - and it's with great aplomb that first-time director Ryan Coogler tackles the preceding 24 hours in Fruitvale Station (2013). Though occasionally bordering on the heavy-handed, this is a bold, evocative debut.Rising star Michael B. Jordan (soon to be seen in Josh Trank's Fantastic Four franchise reboot) takes the lead as Oscar, a one-time dope-dealer seeking to do the right thing. The date is 31 December, his mother's (Octavia Spencer) birthday, and he has much to do ahead of both the evening's family get-together and the New Year's Eve celebrations with his friend and girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) that he has planned afterwards. Oscar is also determined to be a better father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), his four year-old daughter, who we see him dropping of at school before running errands. During the day, Oscar crosses paths with various friends and family in the local community, but his dismissal from work casts a shadow of uncertainty over his future - a future we know he won't ever get to live out.
Is it encouraging or galling to think that it took a first-time filmmaker to explore cinematically such a significant moment in contemporary African-American history as Grant's 2008 shooting? Regardless, with Fruitvale Station, Coogler demonstrates an instinctual gift for encompassing complex issues and themes in the intrinsically small and personal. His outstanding debut feature is full of such masterful moments, be it the loss of our protagonist's job after repeated lateness or his decision to consign his drug-dealing days to the trouble-filled past. Jordan's Oscar is clearly no angel - we're first introduced to him charming his way out of an argument with his partner Sophina regarding another woman - but the belief that Grant was on the verge of finally turning his life around once and for all makes his untimely demise all the more devastating for the previously-primed audience.
There are a handful of cloying moments which don't sit particularly well; a fabricated scene depicting Oscar's despair over a dying dog is as unnecessary as it is reckless, whilst one can't help but wonder how many other liberties the director took with the hours leading to Grant's killing (the symbolic dumping of his last bag of marijuana is another invention). Crucially, and thanks to footage shot at the time by train passengers on camera phones, Coogler doesn't put a foot wrong in his taut depiction of the shooting. Johannes Mehserle, the officer responsible, remains adamant that his intention was to unholster his taser rather than his pistol, and the film is careful not to infer foul play. What Fruitvale Station does do, however, is lament an age where one fatal lapse in judgement can destroy the lives of not just one, but many.