Being young and black in America is still dangerous
On New Year’s Eve, 2009, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan: Chronicle) decided to take the BART to San Francisco to see fireworks and party with friends. By 9:15am the next morning, the 22-year-old was dead.
Stopped by BART officers who suspected Oscar and his friends were fighting on the train, he was handcuffed, restrained and eventually shot by those sworn to keep the peace. The incident was captured, in graphic detail, by dozens of passengers.
The ending to Fruitvale Station isn’t a secret. It’s revealed in the first moments of the movie. You can see the real videos of the shooting on YouTube. The movie isn’t about how Oscar’s story ends but where it might have gone.
In the months before his death, Oscar is trying to turn over a new leaf. He’s out of jail, but reform is harder than it might seem. He’s just lost a job he needs to make ends meet, is in a precarious position with his girlfriend and is trying to prove to his mother that he’s changed. Being an upstanding man takes money he doesn’t have, so throughout his last day, he considers returning to drug dealing to support his daughter and girlfriend.
Despite his troubles, his spirit never breaks. Always ready with an easy, inviting smile, he travels around town brightening many days along his way. He helps a girl at the grocery store pick out fish, pets stray dogs and runs errands for his sister. Writer/director Ryan Coogler mars his feature film debut by over-emphasizing Oscar Grant’s virtues. As a seatmate said after the movie, “They didn’t need to make him so perfect. Even a jerk doesn’t deserve to be shot like that.”
Fruitvale Station loses more power to contrivance by having nearly every character warn Oscar not to go out that night.
Michael B. Jordan overcomes convoluted dialog and plotting. With a winning smile and troubled eyes, Jordan gives Oscar a charisma and humanity that leaves you dreading the last harrowing moments of the film. In the long scenes where he plays with his daughter, you get a sense of the loss the Grant family suffered that January morning.
With Trayvon Martin’s death and its aftermath hot in the news, Fruitvale Station feels especially topical. Oscar and his friends were loud, dressed in baggy clothing — and black. That was enough to put them all at risk when faced with BART officers.
Fruitvale Station is far from a perfect movie, but it’s worth a view, in part for Jordan’s tour de force performance, in part to consider how fear and racial assumptions can lead to tragedy.