On January 1, 2009, an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was fatally shot by an Oakland transit cop while lying facedown on a subway platform. Whether or not the officer thought he was firing a Taser instead of a handgun (as he later testified), such a death is intolerable to a just society. Does it matter that Oscar Grant was kind to animals, loved his daughter, helped strangers? Set largely on the last day of Grant’s life, Ryan Coogler’s first feature answers that question with a heartfelt and emphatic yes. Mundane encounters take on tragic resonance, aided by the audience’s knowledge and heavyweight foreshadowing, e.g., Grant (Michael B. Jordan) cradling a dying dog as a train – the one he’ll later be pulled off of – rumbles by in the background.
Unfortunately, Coogler isn’t content to leave it at that. He crams Grant’s day full of symbolic encounters meant to show us the guy’s good heart and sadly truncated potential, from helping a skittish white lady in the grocery store he works at (by calling his grandmother for a recipe!) to flushing his stash down the toilet. Coogler, who grew up in the same neighborhoods as Grant, evokes a tangible sense of place, and his staging of the climactic incident hits like a fist in the gut. It’s not enough to wipe out his reduction of this real-life figure into a composite-character martyr or the lukewarm filmmaking that’s come before, even if you’re left shaken all the same.