I’ve seen nearly 40 new films this year and I can’t think of one that left me so equally upset and melancholy all at once. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, in part because I have mixed emotions about the series of events. No matter what way I look at it, there’s absolutely no rationale that equates to the senseless death of a 22-year-old young man, young father…young human being.
Fruitvale Station follows the true story of the unfathomable shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle in front of hundreds of people on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station as it returned from San Francisco on New Year’s 2009. After a night of partying to ring in the New Year in the city, what started as a night of celebration quickly took a wrong turn. Grant got into an altercation with another passenger on the train that ultimately lead to the detainment of Grant and several of his friends. Given the tensions on the platform that night likely only fueled by alcohol, the atmosphere, remnants of anger from the fight that started on the train, and the reported aggression of the officers from the moment they arrived on the scene – the situation was bound to get out of control; because, unfortunately, it had all the ingredients to do so. All over what was later described, in essence, as a mistake.
Writer/Director, Ryan Coogler, in his first feature-length film boldly undertakes what is arguably one of the most controversial real-life cases in recent times; treating such sensitive material, still fresh in the minds of many, with grace and an emotional intensity that grabs the viewer from the first frame and doesn’t let go until the last. In a powerful move narratively, Coogler opens the film with actual raw video footage captured on a passenger’s cell phone of Officer Mehserle (though the name was changed for the film) pulling the trigger on Oscar Grant as he’s already being forcefully held down by a second officer. Though the footage is highly pixelated, the tension of the scene is palpable. Instantly, you’re invested wanting to know how we possibly got here.
Consciously saturated by the tension and uneasiness from the opening sequence, Coogler shifts the audience to a recreation of events and our journey toward impending collapse begins. Structurally, the film rewinds focusing entirely on Oscar Grant’s last 24 hours alive, carefully inserting the viewer into what Grant likely also thought was just another day – not his last. This significant approach immediately humanizes the film, shaping a more tangible and compelling narrative. Like Oscar Grant, the viewer in their seat is simply living through another day, never really knowing where life might take them at a moment’s notice.
The film, eloquently shot in many of the same Northern California locations where Oscar Grant himself spent his final hours, does a phenomenal job chartering solid character development given the short amount of time that we spend with the protagonist and his family. Actor Michael B. Jordan, who seamlessly melts into the portrayal of Grant, persuasively captures varied facets of a diverse human being dealing with the nuances of the day, both good and bad. Through Jordan’s performance, we see ourselves in Oscar Grant to the extent that, we too, experience a myriad of emotions in 24 short hours given the circumstances faced in a single day.
Pointedly, the film examines Oscar’s attempts to address some of his demons, namely his moral struggles with selling drugs as a means to support Sophina and 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Thematically, Coogler returns frequently throughout the story to Oscar’s redemption; seemingly highlighting his personal attempts to get his life back on track. This lays the framework for the audience to invest even more deeply into our lead because we see his sensitivity and his endeavors to right wrongs.
As a viewer, this is where I found weakness in the script and where I think “Hollywood” might have stepped in and perhaps lent their formulaic interpretation to the story. While the character is solidly defined within the ramifications of the narrative, something seemed amiss. More specifically, where I question the balance of the film is in the representation of Grant himself. Hollywood is notorious for reshaping events and modifying character traits in many “based on a true story” tales with the aim to tug at the emotions of the audience, and it almost always works. As such, it did cross my mind while entranced at the movie screen if Grant did spend the last 24 hours of his life reassessing his place in world as much as the film depicts? Did he really have a heart-wrenching experience of rescuing a dog who had just been hit by a car? Help a pregnant lady get access to a restroom? Engage in such a vulnerable conversation about promising to come home safely to little Tatiana? Did Grant head to the beach and contemplate his faulty choices in life just before dumping out drugs into the ocean in an attempt to start anew on the eve of his death?
While the film is far from portraying Grant as some sort of angel, devoid of any human flaws; there was a problematic element of coincidence in him finally realizing that he needed to make some serious life changes (and did) hours before he was shot. If this were true, it would make his death all the more tragic. Perhaps this ultimately was the case. It was New Year’s Eve, so it would be an appropriate time to reflect on where you see yourself going. Clearly not being there personally, one would hope that Coogler kept to the spirit of what actually happened as best as he could to honor the truth. The caveat being, that in the art of cinema, the goal is to connect with the audience; usually by painting the protagonist as a tortured hero.
Where I think the feature adaptation got it best, was during the narrative’s climax as the audience returns to the Fruitvale BART station, now more informed about Oscar Grant as a person and where he stood in the world. With an equal level of intensity introduced at the beginning of the film from the actual cell-phone captured footage; Coogler masterfully re-enacts the series of events, capturing the chaos, the tension, and the emotions flaring on the train platform that night to perfection. Surely, having hundreds of eye witnesses and raw footage to reference almost corners Coogler into retaining a high level of authenticity, but pressures everyone involved with the film to get it right.
Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the parameters of the tragedy. Fresh off the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case just few days earlier, I went into the theater with a heightened sense of possible racial motivations leading to another case of injustice. As I watched the film, something became clear and this is where the mixed emotions I mentioned earlier come in. Ultimately, I was disappointed in the entire situation and everyone involved. It was clear that the atmosphere on the BART station that night was getting out of control. It was New Year’s, people were drinking, there was an altercation, and because of this the environment was naturally elevated toward hostility. While there was absolutely no basis for the officer to shoot Grant in the back (though his excuse was that he thought he was reaching for his taser), I couldn’t help but wonder why Grant and his friends didn’t just cooperate instead of resisting arrest and shouting epithets at the officers? Likewise, why were officers being so unnecessarily aggressive and shouting epithets at these young men? I cannot say with absolute certainty that Oscar Grant is no longer with us because of a bigoted cop who exclusively pulled the trigger on another urban youth out of pure hatred based on what I have seen of the footage and the interpretation depicted in the film. Part of me truly believes all of this could have been avoided if everyone involved had checked their emotions and calmed down. There’s fault all around in this, but at the cost of young life. This is equally upsetting and saddening.
The officer involved was sentenced to 2 years and served 7 months time in the shooting death of Oscar Grant. This is where I do question racial and social injustices. Would this officer only have served 7 months if Oscar Grant were not a young black male? If Oscar Grant where a wealthy, Caucasian-American youth, would a “mistake” like this garner more time in prison? Furthermore, I fail to understand why an officer of the law couldn’t tell a taser from a handgun? Given that Mehserle wasn’t in a life threatening situation, why wouldn’t he check which weapon he had in-hand or be level-headed enough to just be more conscious? Yes, it was a stressful scene, but as an officer of the law I would challenge his judgement. I’d argue that use of either mechanism; gun or taser, when your “suspect” is already pinned by a fellow officer seems like unnecessary force – accident or not.
Symmetrically, just as the film opens, the film also closes with real footage. This time, of a memorial tribute to Grant’s memory on New Year’s 2013, depicting a now older but solemn Tatiana, Grant’s only daughter. Book-ending the film with raw video of where Grant’s life took a turn for the worse and how it is remembered is a notable move by Coogler. This method of inviting and exiting the viewer to events of Fruitvale Station reminds the audience, that while you are watching a 90 minute Hollywood interpretation, a young man is still dead. This exit propels the viewer out from the screen and into that reality; where that reality is that many of life’s complications and subsequent turmoil are caused by emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment, that have consequences that last for a lifetime.
Stepping off the page and out of the movie screen, where things are left frustratingly unclear is in my research after seeing the film thirsting for details, wanting to know more about that night. I read that eye witnesses testified that Grant and his friends didn’t resist arrest, yet the officers were extremely forceful. Adversely, I read quotes from officers on-site that night that say otherwise – that the scene was one of the most intense nights in all their years in the field and the young men were resisting arrest. As a viewer trying to wrap my head around what truly happened, but finding contradiction in my investigation, only contributes to deeper mixed emotions and leaves more unanswerable questions that does justice to no one. While there are two sides to a story, there’s also the truth – and an even bigger contention that speaks more highly of humanity is that we have people who cannot come to a consensus of what that truth is despite a life lost. This is quite disturbing no matter what way you look at it.
Well-crafted, well-acted, with questionable motives in character development, yet ultimately fair, but still very tragic; Fruitvale Station is a reminder that one of these days could be our last and for no substantial reason other than an arguable “mistake.”
Let’s learn from this one.
*image courtesy IMDB