It took me way too long to see this dramatization of a local Bay Area tragedy that made national news. The movie opens with the infamous cell phone video footage. Young Oscar Grant III, in custody, handcuffed, and then shot and killed by police officer Johannes Mehserle. So there's already a chill when we go back to the previous morning--New Year's Eve of 2008/2009. Except for a few flashbacks--most notably to San Quentin prison--the movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan...not that Michael Jordan) through his day. Starting with a fight with his girlfriend Sophina. Shopping for his mother's birthday party, helping a white girl pick out fish for a fish fry, meeting up with friends, taking care of his little daughter. And, most notably, struggling with money. He lost his job recently (and hasn't told Sophina) and needs to make rent. The easy solution is to sell some of his stash of weed. So...he dumps it in the Bay. He's getting ready for a new year, and trying hard to do right. Not that the movie shows him as a saint. It manages to respect and sympathize with him without romanticizing him. He's a young father trying to do right, but he's also an angry young man struggling with a history of violence that has put him in prison for most of his daughter's life (I should note at this point I'm strictly looking at the movie, with no attention to how accurately it portrays his real life or character.)
And this all leads up to the fateful incident. In the blink of an eye, celebrations on BART turn ugly. An ex-inmate who has it in for Oscar attacks him, there's a fight, the BART stops, cops board. Tellingly, all the black passengers involved in the fight are dragged off, but the white guy who started the fight is left alone. There's a lot of yelling, confusion, abuse...it would've been mistreatment even if it didn't end in death. As for Mehserle, he's depicted as...well, he's kind of a blank. That makes sense, it's not his story. At most he's shown as a young, scared, confused officer (especially compared to the big, loud lead officer yelling at everyone.) But the movie does show the tasers that he (according to his defense) mistook his gun for. I'll leave it to the audience to decide if the pistol grip is similar enough that it makes sense to confuse them, or if the blocky, yellow tasers are so different from a gun that the defense is bullshit.
All in all, it's a very well made movie about a horrible, unfortunate, racist incident. But the fact that the end is known in advance, and the fact that it's presented with such a careful, balanced feel makes it miss some of the emotional punch it could've had. Instead, it leaves you with something maybe far more valuable than anger or sorrow--it leaves you with the start of a serious conversation.
Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,727