8/1/2013 A 22-year-old man returns home from celebrating New Year’s Eve and is shot in the back by the police who have him restrained and lying on the ground in a train station in Fruitvale Station, a movie about the last day of real-life shooting victim Oscar Grant.
Before seeing the movie, I had vague memories of hearing about the 2009 incident. The basics (with some help from Wikipedia): Oscar Grant, who had a young daughter, and his girlfriend and a group of their friends left their home in Oakland, Calif., and went in to San Francisco for New Year’s Eve. On their way home, there was some kind of fight in the train. Police officers for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) pulled aside Grant and others. Officers put restraints on Grant, who was African American, and held him down, then one of the officers pulled out his gun and shot Grant in the back. According to title cards at the end of the movie, the officer later said he thought he was pulling his Taser. Grant died; the event was recorded by cell phones of train passengers and sparked unrest in Oakland in the days after the shooting and after the trial.
That’s what happens in both the end and the beginning of the movie. In between we get the life of Oscar Grant, with focus on his last day. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) spends some of it with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who is the mother of his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Recently out of jail, he is trying to pull his life together but in all areas there seem to be problems. Sophina and Oscar are trying to fix their relationship and get past his recent, and he swears one-time, infidelity. Oscar, who had sold drugs in the past, is trying to stay on the straight and narrow but recently lost his job for being late. His mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) clearly deeply loves him but their relationship is still on edge after his time in jail. We see Oscar go through his day trying to find a place for himself without sliding back to bad habits. He is a good man — a fact perhaps most obvious when he is having chance conversations with strangers — but the world isn’t making it easy for him to prove this to his loved ones.
That Oscar is not perfect and that Jordan gives us a man who feels fully realized is what makes this movie, which is as much about a character as it is about his shooting. Oscar, by the time we get to the horrible thing that we’ve known all long is coming, feels like a real person. Real people aren’t saints or villains, real people are real people with flaws and dreams and people who love them and poor choices that still haunt them.
Oscar, the movie seems to argue, wasn’t a statistic about gun violence or an example of racial inequities. He was a real guy, who had problems and had a family who loved him, who wanted to do good and might or might not have made it. He had lots of reasons to go on living, even when living was hard, and no good reason to wind up dead. Draw your own Trayvon Martin comparisons and reach your own conclusions about race; the movie doesn’t force anything on you. It just holds up, in a way that is restrained and therefore all the more devastating, a portrait of a real person and his family caught in a tragedy. A
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is an hour and 25 minutes long and distributed by The Weinstein Company.