With summer in full swing for both of us now (Rachael’s been on break for about a month already, so we only have one good month of overlapping summer this year), we decided to inaugurate the season with a random movie pulled off of Netflix the other night. Seeing as I usually have the controller for surfing purposes, I turned it over to Rachael, and she picked a movie called Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale Station is a fictionalization of the real events leading up to a young black man’s fatal shooting by police in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, California. It follows Oscar Grant on the last day of his life, depicting his struggles to make a living that can support his girlfriend and daughter while also planning the evening to be spent first at his mother’s small birthday party and then in downtown San Francisco to celebrate the new year. While riding public transportation, Oscar is attacked by a man he knew from his last stint in prison, and the altercation gets the attention of transit police, who detain Oscar and his friends. In the argument that ensues as Oscar tries to explain that they weren’t the aggressors, the police restrain Oscar on the ground, and one of the officers shoots him in the back. Oscar dies several hours later after extensive surgery to remove the bullet and try to stop the internal bleeding.
The structure of the film is one of inevitable tragedy. It begins with cellphone video of the actual incident, which cuts out just as one of the restraining officers shoots Grant. We know up front that our protagonist has a violent, unfair end, and the following ninety minutes is largely an exercise in exploring the ways in which Oscar Grant’s life was engineered to end poorly no matter what. We learn in rapid succession that Oscar has recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina, they have a young daughter whom they are trying to protect from the realities of being poor in the inner city, he has been fired from his job at a supermarket for repeated tardiness, and he is faced with a day of trying to get his job back while juggling responsibilities to his family (we see repeatedly that despite all of Oscar’s own difficulties, he is unfailingly generous to his siblings and his mother).
Oscar fails to convince his former manager to hire him back, and in a fit of rage threatens the man, ensuring that he won’t be rehired. This is a pretty heartbreaking moment early in the film, because I see this pattern of lashing out at unfair circumstances pretty regularly with my students, and it’s really frustrating to see Oscar burn his bridges because he’s become so desperate for a way to make ends meet. When he later decides to try to sell his stash of weed in order to make some quick money, the decision makes perfect sense even as the audience can see how it likely won’t end well for Oscar. When Oscar goes to meet his contact to sell the marijuana and considers how doing things like this landed him in prison before, he decides to dump his entire stash in the bay and find a legitimate way to support his family. It’s a moving moment for showing Oscar’s new found commitment to staying on the straight and narrow and also eminently frustrating because his money problems haven’t disappeared and he still needs to find a new job. When he finally comes clean to Sophina about losing his job (he had been keeping it a secret in the hope that he’d get rehired and not have to tell her), the scene plays like a signal that Oscar is really going to turn his life around, even though he has a hard road ahead.
Of course, the ending for this movie has been predetermined, and no amount of Oscar struggling with the direction of his life can prevent things from turning disastrous in one moment of bad luck. While riding home on the train, Oscar separates from his friends so that he can find a seat for the long ride, and he gets jumped by a white guy whom he clashed with in prison and the guy’s friends. Oscar’s friends come to his aid, and in the aftermath the police detain them, ignoring the white gang’s involvement in the fight. Things escalate as the police flaunt their power in the situation, and Oscar, angry at the way he and his friends are being treated tries to argue with them before finally being shot.
The narrative here is a familiar one: a young black man is treated as inherently suspect and hostile by police, and when he balks at this demonization, the police respond with fatal force. Oscar Grant isn’t an unusual case, and it’s rather damning that a story about something that happened in 2009 doesn’t seem at all dated in its details six years later.
Fruitvale Station is definitely not an easy movie to watch, but it’s well constructed, and the point it makes about the humanity of people who often end up targeted by police is a good one. I’d definitely recommend watching it.