More Than a Statistic That’s Caught on Tape
Fruitvale Station, the infamous subway stop on Oakland’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system and now potent, harrowing film, opens with the real footage of Oscar Grant’s brutal, unjust death. Taken from a camera phone, the footage we receive has no context as a shaky grainy video captures screams, shouts, and a loud single gunshot, followed by a piercing silence. Maybe that’s all we’d see on a local news broadcast, followed by a short obituary before the next weather segment. But, in regards to race, police brutality, and the unanswered questions that linger on into that fateful night, writer-director Ryan Coogler has chosen to illuminate and critique a life, a culture that consistently deserves and needs more than thirty seconds from a field reporter.
Oscar Grant’s life, which was taken from him by a white transit officer in the early hours of New year’s Day, 2009, is not replayed in its entirety to discover the man he was. Instead, Coogler, in this his remarkable first feature film, chooses to follow his last day alive, dramatizing, humbling, and critiquing Grant’s troubled past, his developing present, and possibly glimmering future. In no means, however, is this an excuse for Coogler to burnish a 22-year-old kid and paint him in idealistic, harmless form. Throughout the course of just one day- and a flashback- Oscar is fully realized, a street tough with a drugged, prison background but also a proud father, devoted boyfriend, with a sweet sensitivity to him. What makes this film ripe with frustration and power is that Oscar looks like he’s turning a corner, seeing the path that men who share his skin color and neighborhood get sucked into, and realizing the less popular one he must travel.
He’s played by Michael B. Jordan, an actor with a background of playing characters tethered to the volatile inner city and broken communities in films like Hardball and the television series The Wire. Jordan has such a natural screen presence, whose physicality and mannerisms resemble a younger Denzel Washington, full of swagger and charm that can instantly turn into a commanding seriousness. That shift takes place over the threshold of his house and car door, the dividing lines between docile domestic gatherings and the unpredictable foreign streets. His slide from brave face to comforting companion becomes gravitating enough to occasionally forget his looming future, one that casts an influential shadow over how to interpret his final moments.
Some of them are extremely warm, others extremely banal, which gives Fruitvale Station an authenticity to its poignant reflections of our daily existence. Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina gives a passionate and caring performance, someone who believes in her man and sees his better side. Together they raise their daughter, a 4-year-old Tatiana (Ariana Neal), the incentive for Oscar to clean up his rocky past and hurdle through his loose ends. Oscar’s mother, given aged and tough love by Octavia Spencer, is celebrating her birthday, and Oscar’s day is predicated upon purchasing some special dinner and a birthday card, errands that carry a weight with them as the night creeps in.
In a scene at a supermarket, Oscar begins a casual flirtation with an attractive girl (Ahna O’Reilly) and eases her qualms about a hosting a barbecue. Later, we find that he’s been recently fired from his job behind the butcher’s counter, and has been slow to inform Sophina, ashamed, embarrassed maybe. He breaks the news to her like a dog asking for forgiveness after peeing on the carpet, puppy eyes hoping to make amends. At a gas station Oscar witnesses a real, stray dog get hit viciously by a car and left on the road, a searing moment that acts as an overt premonition surrounding the senselessness of its bloody death. In the dog’s beating last breaths of life, an intimacy emerges similar to Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Amores Perros, both in content and aesthetic vibrancy.
Coogler remains focused on the subtleties though, like the way in which Oscar stuffs his newly purchased birthday card into his pants, the same way he does a bag of weed before. It’s a harmless action, but because it mimics his crotch smuggling, we are forced to challenge our perceptions of what constitutes suspicious behavior, the superficial prejudices we make everyday.
The film is released at a purely coincidental, but no less monumental time in this country, in wake of the Trayvon Martin trial that has provoked protest, heavy rhetoric, and similar family mourning since the verdict was reached last week. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed an NAACP convention a few days ago, cutting into the heart of race uneasiness within the United States, unafraid to engage in discourse about authority, law, and a subject many feel hesitant exploring. This film is about manhood and family, but also about a system that sees color as an implication.
It makes you wish there were more films courageous enough to discuss or at least demonstrate the unwritten or unspoken rules of the prejudices that have become embedded in society. Why does the conversation over racial tension and corrupted city dreams between Kevin Kline and Danny Glover in 1991’s Grand Canyon continuously feel like a current one? How have things progressed so much and yet at other times feel so static and archaic?
The policeman that killed Oscar Grant with a bullet to his back said he had meant to shoot his Taser gun. He served eleven months of a two-year involuntary manslaughter charged sentence and is now on parole. The buildup to that fatal altercation came to be from a poorly chosen subway car New Year’s Eve night after Oscar’s mother suggested he and his friends take the BART to avoid traffic. In hindsight, that verbal exchange is crushing, but also a reminder of the fragility of life that stems from one small decision, and the ripple effect it had in provoking the convicting fight to break out between Oscar and a former acquaintance.
During the brutal shakedown at the station, the train sits with its doors open, inviting its passengers to become witnesses, phones in hand, to the atrocities to come. What happens when a story like this becomes more than a thirty-second spot on local crime? In Grand Canyon Glover asks Kline, “You ever been to the Grand Canyon? When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are.” Coogler asks us a similar question, and suggests our Grand Canyon can be the edge of a subway platform.