In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was pulled off a Bay Area Rapid Transit Train at Fruitvale Station. A struggle ensued, and BART Officer Johannes Mehserle handcuffed Grant, and while he was face down on the ground, Mehserle fatally shot Oscar in the back. The entire occurrence was captured on video from BART passenger’s phones, ushering in a new era where the whole world is watching. Writer/director Ryan Coogler uses this footage to open his debut, Fruitvale Station, immediately hanging dread over the events while reminding the audience that this is not just a story of a character, this is the story of someone who once lived and breathed and in this very moment, that was all taken from him.
Fruitvale reconstructs the final day of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). What he did, who he talked to, the choices he made, even pausing to flashback to a previous New Year’s Day, one where he was incarcerated. The character of Grant is complex. He is an average boyfriend to his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), a dutiful son to his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), and an excellent father to his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He is also a troubled individual who has dealt drugs to get by, and even though this landed him in jail, he considers returning to this way of life because the rent is due and the bills must be paid. In a silent scene, Grant reflects and then dumps the sack of marijuana in the bay. Grant is trying to make a change, and the tragedy of the ending is that we are watching a man in the middle of a transition.
The climactic sequence, New Year’s Eve and early New Years’ morning, plays with a sense of uneasiness. Every moment, every nuance has an edge to it. It could all go wrong at any second. A few friends hop the turnstiles at the BART, but nothing happens. A young man in a hoodie ominously walks up to Oscar and his group on the train, but it turns out that he has a little radio and speakers, just what the stalled train needs to lift spirits, dance until the ball drops, and countdown to the New Year. On another train, an acquaintance from earlier in the movie recognizes Oscar and calls to him. A fellow inmate from the prison where Grant did his time hears the name and recognizes the voice. He has a bone to pick with Grant, and the two fight. BART police are called, they apprehend Oscar, fighting ensues, and Oscar is shot by the cop. All of it captured on camera phones. Oscar is raced to the hospital, the family is called, and he dies later that morning.
It has been only a few days since George Zimmerman was acquitted on all murder charges against Treyvon Martin. Even though Fruitvale Station was based on an event from 2009, it seems to speak to this tragedy as well. The best movies can do that; they transcend time and allow for illumination. Fruitvale Station has the fortune of being released the same weekend that Zimmerman walked out of court a free man, but also has the misfortune of illuminating an issue that is buried so deep into the human psyche that there may never be an answer. Oscar Grant, much like Treyvon Martin, was just another young black man who was shot and killed by people too scared and racist to trust young black men. Both were unarmed, Martin carried Skittles, Grant was handcuffed, and both are dead. Both of their killers are free men and walk among us. There has been outrage and protest in both cases, but not enough.
There is still a race problem in America, and it is: America has a problem with race. We certainly aren’t going to cure it overnight, but I hope that we might during my lifetime. I think we will. We have elected a black man president twice, and we are taking great strides to understand one another. There is a lot of work to be done, and it never will be finished, but movies like Fruitvale Station help. They show us the day in the life of a person most would casually write off as “just another angry black teen.” They might even think that he got what he deserved. No one deserves to be shot in the back. While handcuffed.
Fruitvale Station encourages us to consider the individual that we see or read about in the news. They lead lives just like us. They struggle just like us, and they try to do the best they can. Just like us. After the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, a popular slogan was “We are all Columbine.” We are all Oscar Grant. We are all Treyvon Martin. We are all in this together.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Written & Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Produced By: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal
The Weinstein Company, Running Time 85 minutes, Rated R, Released July 12, 2013