How do you measure the importance of a life? Do you look at a man’s contributions to society, his success, his wealth, his prominence in the community? Are some lives worth more than others? Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler addresses that question, showing both the troubled side of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was accidentally shot on a subway platform in 2009 while being subdued by police, and the more hopeful side, a man committed to raising his daughter and living a cleaner life. Whatever Oscar Grant’s troubles may have been — whether he’d been convicted of felonies for drug dealing, whether he’d been previously tased by police, whether or not he went to college — none of that should have mattered when measuring the value of his life. He was someone’s son, father, boyfriend, friend. Oscar Grant, by all accounts, was a good guy trying to make his way in a world that thought it already had him figured out before he even had a chance to show who he was. Black kid from Oakland? Drugs? You know the score. The beauty of Fruitvale Station is that it shows what life is like on the other side of the tracks when the police break up a fight between black kids and what they might have done if kids doing exactly the same thing had been white. Fruitvale Station shows what can happen when cops have already made up their minds about you before they even know who you are. Most of White America has no idea what it’s like to grow up like that, to be presumed guilty of a string of crimes before you’ve even committed them. Why else would the cops have reacted in such an extreme manner? Handcuffed, thrown to the ground, never given a chance to explain. Clearly not all cops are bad. Not all white cops are bad. The film doesn’t portray them that way. But there is little doubt that many of them thought they knew Oscar Grant’s type based on how he looked. A fight on New Year’s Eve when there’s drinking involved could happen anywhere, even on the whitest streets of San Francisco. But Oscar Grant had the bad luck of being another color on another street. When Oscar Grant was shot, the officer had only meant to tase him, or so it was claimed. The cop pulled the wrong weapon in the confusion of the moment and shot Grant with a bullet in the back. One thing you never want to do with a gun is pick it up by mistake. The point-blank wound did so much damage to Grant’s body they had to remove a lung before he lost so much blood they couldn’t revive him. The facts of the case alone are horrifying, but Coogler’s handling of the film, of Grant’s life, gives us a chance to get to know a kid who was already doomed by the world he was born into. Drugs can be an easy way out, a quick road to instant wealth. Taking that road is a mistake but there’s no reason the mistake should be fatal. In contrast, notice how the characters in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring turn to crime in a similar manner but their treatment is 180 degrees around the opposite end of the scale. As it happened, Grant wasn’t even committing a crime that night, nor did the officers who detained and eventually murdered him know he had any felony convictions. Coogler’s camerawork is intimate. His sensitivity to the tender and complicated relationship Oscar Grant, played beautifully Michael B. Jones, has with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer, never tips towards unrelenting sentimentality. Most of us already know Oscar Grant’s story going in; the point of the film is to show a life, his life, illustrating his worth in the course of the day leading up to his murder. A graduate of the USC cinema school, Coogler is in complete command of this story, even when it seems like he’s working too hard to make Grant look like a good guy. On the way out of the theater I heard three British men complaining about this, complaining about why he had to work that hard. Because it’s Oakland, not England, I was thinking. Because in America we know there are two justice systems, one for whites, one for blacks. This fact usually chafes at your average American, they so want it not to be true. But Fruitvale Station reveals the diametric opposites so starkly. All you have to do is imagine that the men on that subway train were white, wearing suits or even polo shirts. The same amount of alcohol in their blood, the same amount of drugs. In the capable hands of the Weinstein Co., Fruitvale Station looks to be a promising Oscar contender. Ryan Coogler might join the small number of black filmmakers ever nominated for Best Director. He would join Lee Daniels and John Singleton. Those men are been two in 86 years of Oscar history. Two. The Oscar Grant incident set in motion a chain of protests, both violent and peaceful. Part of that was the video evidence of witnesses who were on the subway and watched the events go down. They were caught on camera. There was no way around the truth. The only play the defense had was to paint Oscar Grant as a trouble maker. And that brings us back to the importance of a life and how you measure it. Do you write someone off for having had a harder road from the start? Do you write them off for mistakes they’ve made? Or do you love them in spite of that. Oscar Grant’s daughter had no reason to regard her father’s life as worthless, not when his arms wrapped themselves around her and made her feel safe. He never got the chance to right the wrongs he’d made in life as he was only 22 when he was shot, barely an adult. Because Hollywood doesn’t ordinarily tell stories like this, most Americans can only build their perceptions from what they see on the news. It is then up to the storytellers to dig up these moments in our past to shine a light on the overlooked corners of our world. Coogler is one of the rare storytellers willing to go there. He tells this story with graceful understatement, but with enough forcefulness to bring it all back home. With this film, Coogler and Jordan have cemented Oscar Grant’s memory. Now all of America will have to look. Fruitvale Station is the best film of the the Cannes Film Festival so far.