The opening footage is shaky, blurry, and when at last you hear a gunshot, you know this is the sound of 22-year-old Oscar Gran's life ending.
"Though it was four years ago, Oscar connected with his loved ones often through his cell phone, even on the last day of his life."
-- Ryan Coogler
"That's fucked up!" The first moments of Fruitvale Station show cellphone footage: uniformed transit cops roughly move a group of young men against a wall at the titular BART stop. The voices belong to the horrified train passengers -- several of them recording with their cellphones -- the frame is shaky and the faces hard to see. But the violence is harrowing, especially as you know you're watching footage shot on New Year's Day 2009, when real cops went after real kids. And when at last you hear a gunshot, you know this is the sound of 22-year-old Oscar Gran's life ending.
Here Ryan Coogler's affecting first feature cuts back to 12 hours earlier, when Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) are telling each other their resolutions. She means to cut carbs, and he means to quit selling dope. Three months out of prison (where he served time on a drug charge), Oscar promises to keep his legitimate job at a market, to never be caught again with another girl (a betrayal for which Sophina has yet to fully forgive him), and to stay with Sophina and their four-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) "forever". "What do you mean, 'forever'?" asks Sophina, at which point he begins to demonstrate, at least until the perfectly adorable Tatiana enters the room and climbs into bed with them.
In another movie, in one where the cellphone footage doesn't come first, Oscar's day might be headed in a right direction. This movie goes on to track his route from his best intentions to the BART station, a series of scenes where Oscar experiences any number of emotions, calling his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) to wish her happy birthday, assuring his sister (Destiny Ekwueme) he'll help her pay rent, heading to the market to pick up his mom's favorite, crabs, for her birthday dinner. Each moment is introduced or punctuated by a cellphone message, as Oscar keeps in touch with everyone, from Wanda to Sophina to a customer in a hurry to purchase some pot, by text or call.
If the phone records provide the filmmakers with a way to reconstruct Oscar's movements on his last day, it also provides you with a way to think about how any day might unfold, by communications, by connections, by keeping in touch. If cellphones have changed users' self-images and views of the world, they've also shifted thinking about time and space. The film makes visible such shifts with text messages printed on the screen, inviting you inside Oscar's mind, what he's reading, how he's writing, words as symbols and vice versa, the translations he makes from one juncture, one location, one fleeting thought, to another.
What might it be like to live inside Oscar's body, to see what he sees, the world outside his bedroom and the world inside his car, the police officers or random passersby who watch him as a matter of course and the little girl who runs into his arms when he arrives to fetch her from day care? Some scenes are more regular movie scenes, showing behaviors that suggest the broad range of his experiences, how he feels and how he's perceived. When Oscar meets a young white woman (Ahna O'Reilly) at the market in need of help with the fish she means to cook that night, he puts her in touch with his Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears), fish expert. As Grandma Bonnie thinks nothing of helping, you see how she sees him, how he sees himself with and because of her, and also, how the white girl's view changes.
As her view changes, so too does yours, when the briefly cuts back in time, to show Oscar in prison, during a visit with Wanda. As she gazes across the table at him, her eyes searching, wanting to know that he's hers still, that he's coming back from this place and the reason he's there, the frame cuts to a fellow inmate approaching, a scary tattooed man who disrepects Wanda as she's sitting there. Oscar's eruption here is frightening, but the film is more invested in her: though she convinces him to cease ("Look at me!"), Wanda won't condone what she sees, refusing to give in to her boy's fear and pain, his violence. As she walks out, toward the camera, Oscar's caught up by the guards, his figure and pleading voice receding as you keep focused on his remarkable mom, heading to you, then past you, Oscar blurry behind her, his prison the time and space where connections break down break down by definition.
What's striking about this scene -- apart from its illustration of Oscar's daunting explosive rage -- is its break from Fruitvale Station's chronology. Wanda's self-preserving departure here, and Oscar's dissolving into a boy who wants more than anything for his mother to hug him goodbye, bear directly on her loss. When she walks in another hallway at film's end, in the hospital, away from the camera this time, the image echoes for you. For as the film asks you to see Oscar's world as he might, it also asks you to see him as she does, as a son and young father, as a man at risk every day of his short life.