"Fruitvale Station" leaves no doubt about what's to come.
It opens with grainy cell phone video of police officers forcing an unarmed black man to the ground on a subway station platform in Oakland, Calif., as incredulous or alarmed onlookers shout, "Let him go," "Protect and serve" and "Hey, come on, man!"
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz.
R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
The handcuffed man is forced face down as a white officer draws a weapon and fires the shot that will be heard 'round the Bay Area and then the nation. It kills 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009 and triggers protests that would be echoed, on a larger scale, after the death of Trayvon Martin.
"Fruitvale Station" goes beyond the headlines and heartache and shows Grant as a son, boyfriend, doting father, drug dealer who served prison time, and a man trying to start the new year with a fresh slate.
Director-writer Ryan Coogler moves from the video to the earliest minutes of Dec. 31, 2008, with Michael B. Jordan ("Parenthood," "Friday Night Lights," "The Wire") playing Oscar. We know we are watching a dramatization of his final hours, which makes even the happiest moments bittersweet or shadowed by dread.
Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), suspects him of seeing an old flame but he pledges his love and loyalty to her and their 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He calls his mother (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, "The Help") to wish her a happy birthday, heads to a supermarket and goes out of his way there to be kind and charming to a stranger.
The balance of the day is consumed with normal activities made abnormal by the fact that he will not have the luxury of doing them again, from picking up his child from preschool to weighing a trip to San Francisco to watch fireworks.
A suggestion to stay safe by taking BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, sounds so reasonable but proves so fateful when a scuffle dumps Grant onto that platform where his life will be cut short.
Mr. Coogler was living in the Bay Area when Grant was shot, and he, like countless others, watched the video of the shooting.
He wanted to go beyond the saint-or-sinner divide about Oscar although he probably tilts the scale by casting someone of Mr. Jordan's tremendous talent and charisma in the lead along with 6-foot-6 Kevin Durand as one of the BART officers alongside Chad Michael Murray. The names of both transit officers were changed for the film, but no attempt is made to explore or scrutinize them.
"Fruitvale Station" is not a documentary but a fictional portrait of a 22-year-old whose death left his daughter without a dad, his girlfriend without a partner, his mother without a son, and his grandmother without one of her grandchildren.
Like a hole punched in the ice, the cracks spread, and they reached 2013 where moviegoers realized "Fruitvale Station" opened or was about to open as news of George Zimmerman's acquittal arrived. Separated by circumstances, 3 years and 2,900 miles, the cases are part of the national conversation on race that moves in fits and starts.
"Fruitvale Station" runs just 84 minutes, long enough to put a face and family on a man whose daughter asks a simple question in the opening hours of 2009 -- "Where's Daddy?" -- for which there is no easy answer.