Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)
“Fruitvale Station” is a true-life character study but you could argue the character being studied is our own.
It’s based on an incident I hadn’t heard about, or had heard and forgotten, in which, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, several African-American men were detained by the transit police at the BART Fruitvale station after a fight on the train; and one of the men, Oscar Grant, 22, handcuffed and in the prone position, was shot in the back by a police officer and died later that morning. Several cellphones videotaped the incident. The movie opens with this real-life cellphone footage.
The rest of the movie is a day in the life. A last day in the life.
The last day
Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, Wallace from the first season of “The Wire”) is a young man at a crossroads. He’s been to prison, recently lost his job, and recently got caught fooling around on his live-in girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He’s a good father, though, with a charming mix of discipline and allowance. He gives Tatiana the fruit roll-up Sophina won’t but doesn’t let her win games the way his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), will. He makes her brush her teeth before bed. He brushes his own with his finger to keep her company.
On this day, his last day, he tries to get his old job back at a local supermarket, and when that fails he tries to sell some pot to a friend. Waiting to make the deal, he flashes back to prison, to the disappointment of his mother there, and dumps the pot into the ocean. He saves a bit for his friend for the trip up. He turns down the cash offered.
He’s a man who has a code in a society that doesn’t, much. At a near-deserted gas station along the coast, he sees a dog run over by a car that keeps going. After yelling at the guy to stop, he picks up the dog and carries it to the sidewalk and comes away with blood on his shirt. The dog is foreshadowing. It’s a metaphor. There are things that keep getting run over by things that keep going.
Mostly, on this last day, he’s running around trying to get things ready for his mom’s birthday party that evening. He picks up crab at the grocery store, goes to the drug store for two birthday cards—one from him and one from his sister, who’s working late. “Don’t buy me no fake-ass card with no white people on it,” she tells him. Which is exactly what he does.
Oscar is someone who makes things happen. A pretty girl at the supermarket (Ahna O’Reilly) needs fish advice so he calls his Grandma to give it to her. Sophina and her friend need to use the bathroom New Year’s Eve and he brokers the deal with the storeowner who’s closed. He takes the lead with the transit cops at Fruitvale Station, too.
But for most of the day, most of the movie, there’s little driving the story forward except our foreknowledge of how it will end. That can be boring. I admit to being bored. I liked the glimpses of the life but I understood early what first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler was doing. “I wanted people to see a little of themselves in Oscar even if they were outside of that community,” he told The Guardian earlier this year. I am and I did. I still wanted a greater driving force.
In the end, amid the small details of the last day, Oscar makes two big decisions. Should he sell pot when he can’t get his job back? (No, he decides.) Should he tell Sophina that he lost his job? (Yes, he decides.) There are more decisions to make—his money and job problems loom—but all of his decision-making ends with someone else’s decision. If it was a decision.
The first day
You can’t say boo in America anymore without it being politicized—particularly about racial matters—and “Fruitvale Station” is no different. Many are comparing the movie to the Trayvon Martin case, and there are similarities, but just that. The Oscar Grant case, sadly, feels typical: unarmed black man shot by cop, who receives light sentence (two years, probation after 11 months). The Trayvon case was slightly atypical: unarmed black kid shot by citizen (or would-be cop), who wasn’t arrested until weeks later. That’s what made it a national story: the lack of arrest, and the assumptions that went into that lack of arrest. Reverse the colors of the principles—armed black man shoots unarmed white kid—and the structural leniency accorded George Zimmerman disappears.
There are assumptions in the Oscar Grant case, too, at least as dramatized in “Fruitvale Station.” A fight on a train New Year’s Eve, white vs. black, and who gets pulled off? Not the white guy who started it. He isn’t touched. No, the transit cops pull off, isolate, handcuff and arrest Oscar and his friends, despite a decided lack of evidence. The shooting, with Oscar handcuffed and lying in the prone position on the ground, is ambiguous—it occurs off camera—and in real life was ruled involuntary manslaughter. The officer says he thought he was shooting his Taser, not his service revolver.
The great irony is when all this happened: Not just the first day of the new year but the first day of the year we would inaugurate our first black president. It was the first day of the first year of post-racial America.