Ryan Coogler’s debut film begins with real cellphone video of the deadly climax of the film. This opening is absolutely harrowing and sets the tone of the picture perfectly, creating a film that is unrelentingly heart-wrenching.
The story revolves around the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life leading up to his death by an accidental shooting by police on the platform of the Fruitvale train station on early New Year’s Day 2009. He spends his last day trying to refashion himself from his criminal past, get his job back, celebrating his mother’s birthday, all in all striving to better his future for his girlfriend and daughter.
They are simple mundane activities many people experience throughout each day, but the fact that Oscar’s fate has already been revealed is what makes them so effective in persuading the audience to fall in love with Oscar. It really makes Oscar a tragic character to witness, the fact you know he’s going to die. Ryan Coogler accents this oncoming tragedy by cutting to shots of the train rolling by throughout the day, providing haunting foreshadowing.
I’ve been a Michael B. Jordan fan since his days as Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights, and he’s been a rising presence since, but here as Oscar he is an absolute force to be reckoned with. At this point, it’s the best male lead performance I’ve seen this year. Octavia Spencer gives a fantastic performance as Oscar’s mother, and these two together present a powerhouse of acting in a flashback scene when Oscar receives a visit from her in prison.
When we reach the tragic scene on the platform, Coogler manages an impressive feat by making the reenactment just as intense and shocking as the cellphone footage he began with. As far as directorial debuts go, Coogler is a standout. This does not feel like a film made by a newcomer, but rather a seasoned auteur. This film gave me chills I haven’t experienced from a movie in a while. Many people left the theater in tears.
Coogler avoids making a ham-fisted political statement at the end, a surprising and refreshing choice, seeming to know that to do so would take away from the tragic character of Oscar. He seems to understand that to put politics into it would only distract from the heartbreaking elegy he just presented.