DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
The film "Fruitvale Station" is a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders' cellphone cameras. It stars Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer; and Michael B. Jordan, best known for his roles as Wallace on the first season of "The Wire," and Vince Howard on "Friday Night Lights." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The actor Michael B. Jordan gives a major performance in Ryan Coogler's debut film, "Fruitvale Station." He plays the 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant, who was shot in a run-in with cops at an Oakland, Calif., train stop in the early hours of 2009.
The film opens with cellphone footage of the actual event, so you know what's coming. But the Oscar you meet on the last day of 2008 remains a man, not a martyr. In Jordan's hands, he's an unstable child-man in a jittery society. He's an ex-con, a former drug dealer. His motor runs fast. He acts before he thinks. He's quick to get riled up, but equally quick to turn affectionate. You can see him trying to temper himself, to grow up before your eyes.
In the first scene, he's grilled by his girlfriend Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, about an affair with another woman. He's busted, and he knows it. But he doesn't get haughty. He tells her the relationship meant nothing, and his eyes are sharp and clear. You get the sense he really means it; that he's determined to be with Sophina forever and be a real dad to their 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana, played by a heart-wrenching cutie named Ariana Neal.
Oscar wins you over completely, a short time later. He's driving to work - actually, to the supermarket where he used to work before he got fired for being late too many times. He phones his mother, played with biting emotion by Octavia Spencer; who asks if he's driving and then, if he's talking on a headset. He says yes, he's on a headset - a lie. But as he's saying that, he pulls over and slides the phone over his ear into his tight cap. Kind of like a headset - lying to his mom didn't sit right.
After things go badly at the supermarket, Oscar is on the verge of dealing pot again when he remembers his mother's final visit to him in prison. And the film flashes back.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRUITVALE STATION")
OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) I'm not coming here for these visits anymore. This is my last time.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Oscar) I know. I know. I know. I know this is the last time for me, too. I told you that. I ain't going down no more.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) If you want to keep putting Sophina through this, then you go right ahead. OK? But Tatiana - that baby doesn't deserve this, Oscar.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) She's too young to know what's going on.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) So I guess that's why she asked me why you loved taking your vacations more than you like being with her.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) Ma, you got to tell her I love her. Tell her - tell her I ain't never gonna leave her.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) Tell her yourself. The next time you call home, you tell her yourself. Or better yet, let her come visit you here.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) Yeah, but I don't - she don't need to be exposed to this.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) You already exposed her. You already exposed her to this.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) So you're just going to leave me? You're going to leave me again? What kind of mom is you? I'm in here by myself.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) I love you, Oscar.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) You don't love nothing.
SPENCER: (As Oscar's mom) I do. And I'm praying for you. I'll see you when you get home.
JORDAN: (As Oscar) Hey, Ma. Hold up. Let me get a hug, Ma.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As guard) Grant!
JORDAN: (As Oscar) Hey, Ma, I can't get a hug?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As guard) Back to the visiting area, Grant!
JORDAN: (As Oscar) Hey, Ma, I'm sorry! Get out of here. Ma, I'm sorry. Can I please get a hug, Ma? Ma, at least give me a hug.
EDELSTEIN: Director Ryan Coogler doesn't fill in the rest of Oscar's life - how he was raised, the nature of his juvenile crimes, how he got caught and sent to prison. So it's hard to know if he's sweetened the portrait. He shows Oscar interacting broadly, buoyantly, generously with people of all races, even creating a sort of utopian multiracial community on the BART train heading for San Francisco on New Year's Eve.
Most of the time, though, Coogler depicts a hyper-masculine world full of dangerous corners in which every encounter - with a store manager, an inmate, or one of the film's ubiquitous cops - has the potential to get ugly fast. "Fruitvale Station" is shot in black and white, its texture rough. Coogler uses all kinds of tricks - quick inserts of the subway station, a documentary-like, handheld camera - to keep this from seeming like a middlebrow message movie.
The climax, when it comes, feel preventable, not inevitable. Cops arrive to break up a fight that has already ended. Oscar and his friends get down on the ground, but they're mouthy. They want the last word. The cops don't defuse the tense situation; they seem eager to escalate it. No one lets anything go.
The end of "Fruitvale Station" - a hospital sequence, a crawl that says what happened next, some true-life footage - isn't very satisfying. But everything up to the gunshot is indelible. Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have made at least momentary sense of the tragically senseless.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.