In Theaters: Now
It’s not too soon to trumpet Michael B. Jordan as a likely 2014 Best Actor Oscar nominee. The soft-spoken, baby-faced actor — best known for his fine TV work in The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood — is that powerful in this exceptional drama.
The true story traces the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Jordan), a 22-year-old ex-con who was shot in the back by an Oakland transit cop in the Fruitvale train station just after New Year’s Eve in 2009. His death and the police officer's ensuing slap-on-the-wrist conviction led to massive protests throughout the area.
That’s the headline. This film captures the human. Thanks to a series of quietly riveting snapshots, Oscar is shown as a caring father, an aimless pot dealer, a doting boyfriend, and a short-fused punk who angrily threatens his former grocery store supervisor. In a searing flashback scene, Oscar, whose drug-dealing landed in him in jail, gets a visitation from his mom (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday. One minute, he’s nonchalantly conversing with her about his daughter; the next, he’s embroiled in a knock-down fight with a fellow inmate; the next, he’s tearfully begging his mom for a hug as she leaves in a furious huff. It’s an unflinching, 360-degree character portrait.
Ultimately, Oscar is the hapless victim. Though his demise is set up in the prologue, this doesn’t make his last chaotic moments in Fruitvale any less tension-filled: As he lay handcuffed face-down on the ground unarmed, pleading to the arresting, menacing police officers of his innocence, audiences might get lulled into the feeling that maybe — just maybe — his life will be spared. Instead, his death is played out in haunting fashion. Spencer’s reaction to every parent's worst nightmare is a gut-wrencher.
All this drama might seem overwrought and manipulative — if it weren't for the actual raw footage, shown in the film, from horrified onlookers who recorded the incident on their Smartphones. In the end, these eyewitness accounts help bring Oscar’s murder to justice. Just know that his unshakeable tale doesn’t bring closure.