What's remarkable about the legitimacy of the picture is that its writer/director, Ryan Coogler, is only 26 years old and fully understands how this story needs to be told. His decision is simultaneously simple and difficult, and very wise: to start the narrative with the actual cell phone footage of Grant's death, and then to flashback to that morning and trace the young man's actions leading up to his tragic end. I call this wise because to extend the portrait Grant's life beyond his final day would be to decorate a life that frankly is not notable enough to warrant an extended look into. He was a plain, ordinary man who had plenty of problems but a number of great strengths to compensate for them. To show much else would be both unnecessary and detrimental to the emotional blow that comes at the BART tragedy. Yet I call it difficult because when dealing with a film set during a day, especially someone's last one, it is certainly a challenge to find the right tone, to know when to embellish, and to avoid cheating one's way to a moving experience.
Coogler's strength is knowing how to navigate his way through this tricky territory without barely any manipulation or false emotion. Shooting with lots of medium shots and closeups, he takes us right into Oscar's final 24 hours and treats it like any other day. Sure, it's the last day of the year and it's his mom's birthday, but never once do we feel like Coogler is aware that this is Oscar's final day. He gives us plenty of mundane activities like taking his daughter to school, filling up the car with gas, and shopping for his mom's birthday dinner. There's also ample humor, not necessarily because Coogler wants to lighten the load for the viewer, but more to impart Oscar's truly playful and likable personality. Coogler stresses the little details like when Grant slips an extra pack of gummies in his daughter's pocket before school after mom ha said no, or when he buys a birthday card for his mom featuring a photograph of a white woman blowing out a her candles and surrounded by white friends. There are bits in which we feel Coogler is getting precious, and yet he always throws us for a loop by taking such moments into surprising dramatic directions. When Oscar is at the supermarket, he runs into a white woman who is completely ignorant over what to buy for her New Year's fish fry. Oscar notices, strikes up a conversation, calls his grandmother (who of course is an expert when it comes to cooking) and lets the woman talk to her to get all the best tips on fish frys. The scene feels mildly saccharine, yet Coogler uses it to then bring Oscar face to face with his boss (Oscar works at the supermarket but it's his day off) and learn that his job's over because he's showed up late too many times. The movie is filled with moments like these. Just when it seems Coogler is pandering to audience sentiments he subverts our expectations.
Still, that's not to say Coogler has no right to glorify Oscar in some way. Apparently the guy really was stellar (the actors would just sit down and talk with Oscar's friends and family to find out about him seeing as the recorded material of him is his death) and Coogler's main concern is getting that point across. Yet it's the way he does it, the balance he finds in showing Oscar's weaknesses and how they were often intertwined with his good qualities that makes this so dramatically compelling. One could say Coogler simply understands how to create a three-dimensional character, which is in and of itself a very good thing. Yet here it's something more: it's not so much that a character has multiple dimensions, it's how they're presented. As I said, Coogler doesn't cheat. Watching him work this young man's final day on earth is truly compelling.
Of course, we know all along what's coming, which makes everything we're watching all the more troubling and moving. By the time the climax arrives, we feel like we're in the middle of a great thriller. The scene, visceral and disturbing, is a perfect example of Hitchcock's definition of suspense. It's when we know there's a bomb and we're waiting for it to go off that our nerves really go on the edge.
As impressed as I was by Coogler's handling of Oscar's life, perhaps even more admirable is how he deals with his death. There are no histrionics, no music (in fact, he wisely and courageously avoids having much of musical soundtrack until the end credits). He shows remarkable restraint, choosing docudrama over melodrama. To be called a tearjerker I believe a film must cheat its way towards that title. As I said, this one earns those tears. To call it a tearjerker might even be an insult.
In closing, I'd like to backtrack to that scuffle on the train that set off this American tragedy. This a spoiler, but the instigator of the tragedy is one of Oscar's former inmates (there's a brief flashback in the movie when we see him in prison). They had fought behind bars, and now the former inmate seems to want to settle the score. This can be seen in two ways: First, unless my research is false and this actually happened, this a major contrivance on Coogler's part. How could a film so real settle for what amounts to a Hollywood convention in its most important moment? And yet, one could also see it as a continuation of Coogler's dramatic method: throughout the movie he contrives scenes, like the one in the supermarket, before he surprises us with something completely unexpected. In a way, this train contrivance is like the culmination of this technique. It's the most obvious and artificial moment in the movie, but it also leads to the most powerful and stunning scene in the film (even though we know what's coming, it still comes across as shocking). Either way, I'm fascinated by what how Coogler tells this entire story. It's a difficult and delicate task to make a film about Oscar Grant. Coogler's feels effortless-more power to it because of it.