In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.
The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?
Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.
But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.
Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."
The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.
There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.
As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.
Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.
"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"
The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.
The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.
Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.