Ryan Coogler’s assured feature film debut about the 2009 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a police officer at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland (where the film gets its title) grips you from the first moment as he shows the cell phone video of the actual shooting as it took place. It’s a chilling visual and permeates the film with the dread of knowing how this night will end.
Detailing the last 24 hours of Grant’s life, it shows him desperately trying to earn some quick cash so that he and his longtime girlfriend Sophina (a very good Melonie Diaz) can head into San Francisco for the New Year’s Eve fireworks and to get food for his mother’s birthday party that night. Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner for The Help) plays Grant’s mother Wanda in a performance that quietly builds until she soars in the final hours waiting to hear her son’s fate. But, she doesn’t do it by screaming at hospital staff; she does it by maintaining dignity and grace in the face of the worst moment in her life. It’s a heartbreaking performance.
Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) is excellent as Oscar, infusing him with charm and kindness but also a hair-trigger for anger and violence. While at the grocery store where he was recently fired for being late too many times, Oscar helps a woman with a fried fish recipe by calling his grandmother to talk to her. In the very next scene he’s talking to his former manager, begging for his job back, and it quickly escalates to Oscar threatening the man. Coogler also deftly employs scenes of Grant in a 2007 stint at San Quentin (a scene that foreshadows the upcoming events), but also turning down some easy money to sell drugs. He’s a man trying to better himself, be a better partner and a better father. He’s sympathetically drawn but still complex and three-dimensional.
The film closes with an epilogue detailing the officer's trial (in which he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter), his stunningly short sentence (two years) and that he only completed 11 months of it. This led to a period of Oakland riots that destroyed part of the downtown area.
Where Coogler succeeds most with this film is its extraordinary subtlety. Making it non-exploitative and almost mundane adds to the film’s power, showing that this type of violence happens so often and almost casually. Coogler is from Oakland and this is a story very close to his heart and home. For a first-time director to achieve a level of serious social weight and to do so without grandstanding or soapboxing his cause is the mark of a great filmmaker, and I look forward to what he has to offer us next.