Some people in 2013 may think that young, unarmed black men(and teenagers)getting shot by “authorities” is something new. It’s not…and that’s a huge part of the issue. There is no way to view this film without thinking of Trayvon Martin, so I’m not even going to try. Can I write this review without making obvious which side I’m on in that horrible incident—I doubt it. But I’m going to make the attempt to not stray too far from discussion of the film itself(but I’ve been known to fail). “Fruitvale Station” does possess the potential to be a big, controversial powder keg come Oscar time. And it is also going to be difficult to write this without spoilers, but I’m going to give that my best shot too. The Oscar Grant subway shooting by a BART(which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer has been on my radar for a few years. I also have friends in Oakland, California who have spoken to me about the unrest following the shooting and the subsequent trial. As a child raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, I’ve usually considered myself more in tune with the urban plight than my current suburban neighbors and friends seem to be. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. As a middle-aged white guy, I don’t pretend to speak for the black community in any way. I just feel that I “get it” more than most. Ask yourself this…how many times have you heard about an unarmed, white man getting shot. Most likely never, right? The story of Oscar Grant has a result that is unfortunately all too common. And it’s about time that a tale such as this has been turned into a major motion picture. It being a very good film is a definite bonus.
“Fruitvale Station” opens with video footage of the actual shooting incident. That’s right, the January 1st, 2009 occurrence was captured on multiple cell phone cameras. That’s the one BIG difference concerning violence like this happening in the current century as compared to the last one— chances are, someone is recording it(and no, I didn’t forget about the 1991 Rodney King beating footage…but it was a lot rarer back then). That Oscar Juliuss Grant III was no angel is not in dispute. And there is no attempt made in the film to hide that fact. He had served time in prison, had difficulty holding a job and had been known to sell and use drugs. But director Ryan Coogler, with his feature debut, wisely chooses to show us Oscar Grant’s softer side intercutting with the hard-core stuff. Oscar(as played by Michael B. Jordan in a star-making, Oscar nomination-worthy performance)loves and respects his mom, Wanda(beautiful work from Academy Award winner, Octavia Spencer)and dotes on his 4-year old daughter, Tatiana. We also witness Oscar verbally sparring with his girlfriend, Sophina(a wonderfully nuanced performance from Melonie Diaz)—who is also the mother of his child. They appear to have a troubled relationship, with Oscar accused of being unfaithful. Oscar is also shown getting verbally volatile with a former boss at a deli market, soon after trying to convince the man to give him another chance with his previous job(apparently he’s been fired recently, due to chronic lateness). This occurs moments after Oscar is shown instructing a stranger, a young white woman, on how to fry fish. He even goes as far as putting her on his cell phone with his expert fish-fryer grandmother. It’s obvious that this is a day where Oscar has reached some epiphanies in his life. You see, except for the opening video footage and the occasional flashback, the majority of the movie takes place on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Of course, this would be a common time for resolutions. On a whim at one point, Oscar dumps the big baggie of drugs he’s been selling into the ocean. It’s no secret that sticking to those resolutions is much more difficult than making them. And then Oscar makes the fateful decision of taking the train with his friends to a San Francisco New Year’s celebration, instead of driving his car.
Are there embellishments in this script by the director, Ryan Coogler? Oh, I would bet there certainly are. But you wouldn’t have to search long on this site to read me ranting against the liberties taken with the facts in 2012 Best Picture winner, “Argo”. And you know what, the fudging is decidedly not as outrageous here, as it was with that Academy Award favorite. For one thing, just what happened on that day before the shooting is open to speculation. A lot of guess-work must be involved, as well as some outright fabrication. Coogler has chosen a time capsule approach to showcase Oscar’s life, and I believe his instincts were correct. He shows that Oscar’s no choir boy, but he keeps him human too. Will the naysayers focus on the hyperbole? Of course they will…but I will accuse them of ignoring the point. Oscar Grant was unarmed when he got off that train at Fruitvale Station after midnight on January 1st 2009, and the officers had no way of knowing if he was a “good” guy or a “bad guy”—or some kind of hybrid of the two. The only thing apparent is that he is a young black man accused of being involved in some type of disturbance on the train. It’s been claimed that some white guys were involved in the fracas on the BART as well—but none were detained or arrested. And then there is the question of whether or not the incident in the film was an accident, or not. Again, even if it was…so what? The final result of that “accident” is all too familiar. Twenty-four years ago, during the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing” was released at a time when the city of New York was going through a high degree of racial tension. That was a great film, and “Fruitvale Station” is simply a very good one. It illustrates to me just how far we haven’t come in the last quarter of a century though, despite the fact that we’ve elected our first African-American president to two consecutive terms. I’ve heard some pretty horrible things spouted by people I know and/or work with since the reading of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Some of those people are quite intelligent too. Am I calling them all racist? No, I’m really not. But I will accuse many of being ignorant and unaware. Oscar Grant was unarmed and lying on the ground when he was being held by police at Fruitvale Station. Trayvon Martin was unarmed and innocent when he was accosted in a Florida gated community. There has been a vocal black community outrage involving both cases. And somehow, most white folks I encounter just don’t seem to “get it”. Do me a favor, quell your anger if you feel your are one of those I’m pointing fingers at and just go see this film. The story of Oscar Grant needed to be told. And it’s been told very well, indeed. Grade: A-