Release date (U.S.): July 12, clinic 2013
Running time: 85 minutes
Writer and director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, twenty-two-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 and director Ryan Coogler uses this footage to open his debut, Fruitvale Station, immediately hanging dread over the events while reminding the audience that this isn’t 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.
The film 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. Grant’s character is complex, he’s 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’s also a troubled individual who’s 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. He’s 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 climatic sequence, New Year’s Eve and early New Year’s 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 he has a little radio and speakers, just what the stalled train needs to lift spirits, dance, 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, Oscar’s apprehended, more fighting ensues, and he’s shot by the cop. Oscar’s raced to the hospital, the family is called, and he dies later that morning.
It has been only a few weeks 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 Stationilluminates an issue that’s 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 too racist to trust young black men. Both were unarmed, Martin carried Skittles, Grant was handcuffed, and both are now dead. Both of their killers are free men and walk among us. There’ve been outrage and protest in both cases, but not enough.
There’s 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’ve elected a black president, twice, and we’re taking great strides to understand one another. There’s 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 hand-cuffed.
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 tried 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.
Michael J. Casey studied film at the University of Northern Colorado and has continued to study it with a voracity that some might consider unhealthy. He bounces back and forth between Los Angeles, CA and Denver, CO where he watches an inordinate amount of movies and occasionally writes about them.