Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), three months out from a drug-related prison term, is having a pensive, at-a-crossroads New Years Eve. A handsome twentysomething African American trying to wean himself off "selling trees" at the urging of his wary, hectoring girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and for the sake of his four-year-old daughter, he tools around the East Bay in his car, stopping at the Oakland food market from which he was just fired to shop for his mother's birthday party and plead for his reinstatement. Failing to persuade his ex-boss, he easily manages to charm a young white woman at the seafood counter by phoning his culinary-whiz grandma to administer a crash course in executing a fish fry. This casual act of charity is deflated by a bayside flashback to Oscar's last visitation with his plainspoken mother (Octavia Spencer) in the joint, followed by a bathetic incident with an unfortunate (and unfortunately symbolic) stray dog and a confession of Oscar's firing to Sophina, who demands to know his plans. "Maybe not fuck up for 30 days. That's how long Oprah says it takes to form a habit, right?" And they quickly, desperately make love, before it's time to pick up their child from daycare.
In his debut feature, Fruitvale Station, writer-director Ryan Coogler dramatizes a scandalous true story, as frankly established by his prologue: a grainy real-life clip of the unarmed Oscar Grant's shooting death by a transit cop in the early hours of New Years Day 2009. Coogler's mixed success is reflected in text versus subtext; when the film stays with Oscar's errands, wanderings, and struggles with Sophina, it has forceful quotidian grit, enhanced by Rachel Morrison's Super 16 lensing, but overt approaches to racial themes run toward the familiar and ham-fisted. A utopian, improvised New Years countdown on a Bay Area train before its passengers can reach a midnight fireworks display, shared by Oscar and his homies, Sophina, and a pan-racial throng including white hipsters and a black lesbian couple, is too "warmly" generic to feel like anything but a careful dose of corn to cushion the climactic horror. (When race explicitly surfaces in the family scenes, as in party talk that rooting for a Super Bowl team should be based in part by their "black players...a black coach...a black coach with a black wife!," the vernacular humor is on the real side, and far more acute.)
The violent crisis that bears down on Oscar at Fruitvale station—a runaway train of coincidences, escalating slurs, and terrible instincts—is cautiously tucked between familial longings, as his gasp of "I got a daughter" nearly completes Coogler's frame of parent-child bonds as the crux of his drama (though a counterproductive, drawn-out hospital sequence muffles it). Spencer brings tones of impatience and watchful anxiety to her familiar figure of tough, even-keeled love, but the focus on her devotion, and the aw-shucks sentimentality of Jordan's soft-spoken parenting scenes, evade a larger purpose that Fruitvale Station needed to address more boldly. Oscar Grant may have yearned to dedicate his snuffed-out future to his daughter, but doting on that theme doesn't speak to the larger issue of why he died. Coogler seems to be a sharp handler of actors, but his screenplay goes soft and clumsy when juxtaposing individual racial rapprochement with America's ongoing tragedy of young black men caught in the maelstrom of deadly force.