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On Movies: 'Fruitvale Station' is a first-rate film that is especially timely

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2013: "... when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away." -- Barack Obama, July 19, commenting on the Trayvon Martin case

Early on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, at the Fruitvale station on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a BART policeman. Grant was with a group of friends in a packed car returning to Oakland after celebrating the New Year in San Francisco when a scuffle erupted that spilled out of the car into the station. Grant and several of his friends were arrested.

Grant, who was not armed, initially struggled with police, protesting that he had done nothing. Then he settled down. A cell-phone video of the arrest, shot through a confused melee of police and passengers, shows that he was sitting on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back when the fatal shot was fired into his back at close range.

Grant was African American, and release of the cell-phone video led to mass demonstrations and calls for action against the BART officer who had fired the fatal shot and against the top brass of the BART police system. Action taken in response to the demands, at BART and in the courts, is succinctly detailed at the end of "Fruitvale Station," a compelling dramatic film that focuses on Grant on the day that led up to the shooting.

The depiction of the last 24 hours of Grant's life is richly peopled -- Grant was part of a large and loving extended family -- and filled with vivid detail about life in a relatively poor section of Oakland. The actors, most of them little known, are excellent, particularly Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), who plays Grant's strong-willed mother, loving but wise to her son's evasions.

But the best thing about the film is the performance by Michael B. Jordan ("Friday Night Lights") as Grant, a confused young man with both good and bad qualities trying to make sense out of life in a world he doesn't really understand.

As the film progresses, Grant seems friendly and open and even helpful to strangers and casual acquaintances, who include Hispanics and whites as well as African Americans. Grant loves his family -- he spends much of Dec. 31 shopping for his mother's birthday party, which is vividly recreated. He is even concerned about the fate of stray dogs, as we learn in a scene that is perhaps the film's only misstep, a lurch in the direction of sentimentality.

But young director Ryan Coogler doesn't try to paint Oscar Grant as a saint. The tone of the movie is sad as much as angry. The film shows that Grant was an occasional pot dealer who had served time in prison. He had trouble holding a job. And his fervent vows of fidelity to his girlfriend, the mother of the daughter he adored, may have been sincere when he made them, but he was not immune to temptation. He was what might be called a troubled young man, but he was far from a thug, and there was nothing about him that suggests he deserved to be shot and killed.

 ‘The Hunt’

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, his chiseled face cut with lines of pain, gives a mesmerizing performance in "The Hunt" as Lucas, who is recovering from a nasty divorce and child-custody battle. He seems to be getting his life together working at a kindergarten in his hometown when a false accusation of child molestation turns him into a pariah.

The accusation is made in a moment of pique by the daughter of Lucas' best friend since childhood, and it creates such fury that the shy little girl finds herself trapped in the falsehood. When she first tries to take the accusation back, adults embrace a pop-psychology cliche -- they decide she is trying to repress unpleasant memories.

"The Hunt" is a powerful study of how easily a single untruth can poison human relationships, particularly in a small, close-knit community. Sometimes the film is hard to take, but it is never seems less than tragically real. Director Thomas Vinterberg pursues the story where it takes him, and he is not inclined to letting his characters off the hook. Even when it appears the matter has been settled, the filmmaker makes it clear that the poison will linger.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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