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‘Fruitvale Station’ depicts social injustice at its most brutal

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) young man with troubled past is confronted by law-enforcement officer (KevDurand) an incident thturns tragic

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young man with a troubled past, is confronted by a law-enforcement officer (Kevin Durand) in an incident that turns tragic in “Fruitvale Station.”

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Oscar Michael B. Jordan

Sophina Melonie Diaz

Wanda Octavia Spencer

Caruso Kevin Durand

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated R (for some violence, language throughout and some drug use). Running time: 90 minutes. Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: August 20, 2013 6:06AM

The social injustice of the ugly crime at the heart of “Fruitvale Station” might have seemed more naturally suited to a documentary, but the story comes to life much more powerfully in this intensely involving drama.

Based on the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a San Francisco rapid-transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, “Fruitvale” won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival and a major award at Cannes, for good reason. The intimacy of debut writer-director Ryan Coogler’s approach to the film and the no-frills, believably real quality of the main performances combine to drive the senselessness of Oscar’s killing home with visceral impact.

“Fruitvale” opens with actual cellphone footage of the shooting, a confused shot of an altercation between Bay Area Rapid Transit cops and a group of handcuffed black men sitting on the station platform. The shouts grow more heated, one of the men is shoved face downward, an officer steps in closer and bends down and we hear what sounds like a shot going off. At which point, the film rewinds to early morning on New Year’s Eve for a playback of the last day of Oscar’s life.

Any concern that Coogler might have set out to sanctify him are dispelled in the opening scene, in which Oscar (Michael B. Jordan of “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”) is confronted by his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) about having been caught in an affair — before being interrupted by the arrival of their daughter Ta­tiana (Ariana Neal). There’s something else he has been hiding from Sophina that’s soon revealed. Several months after being re­leased from prison, presumably for low-level drug dealing, he’s lost his job at a local supermarket for being repeatedly late to work. And with the rent coming due, he’s feeling the pressure to sell the sizable bag of marijuana they keep hidden in the closet. Coogler also makes it clear that Oscar has a hot temper when his unsuccessful attempt to persuade his manager to re-hire him triggers a brief flare-up.

Having made full (at least what appears to be full) disclosure of the demons Oscar is wrestling with, however, Coogler proceeds to show another side of his character during the rest of the day. He learns his sister needs help with her rent and decides to sell his stash before thinking better of it. And he flashes back to the previous New Year’s Eve, when he was in prison being visited by his tough-loving mother (Octavia Spencer of “The Help”), who convinces him that the path he’s on will hurt his daughter.

In short, “Fruitvale Station” is a portrait of a young man who’s clearly trying to turn his life around against the odds. That’s made more clear when he goes into San Francisco to see the fireworks with his friends and Sophina later that night (riding a BART train at his mother’s suggestion), and Oscar makes the acquaintance of another youngish man who had also been on the wrong side of the law before straightening himself out for his now-pregnant wife—and you can see possibilities taking shape in his mind.

All of that ends abruptly, though, as we know it will from the beginning, when a chance encounter with a prison enemy on the train leads to a fight, which results in the transit cops being called, which results in them taking Oscar and his friends off the train, cuffing them and re-enacting the opening sequence with much more shocking detail.

At that point, whatever quibbles there might be about the way the film was made (on a low budget with grainy film in hand-held cameras) or whether it’s an objective depiction of Oscar Grant’s life seem irrelevant, compared to the stark truth of a man in this country being shot in the back by police while face-down and handcuffed — for no justifiable reason.

It’s something that’s not easy to watch and shouldn’t be forgotten.

Bruce Ingram is a locally based free-lance writer and film critic.

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