After the recent grand jury decisions, following the deaths of 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, both unarmed African-Americans who died by the hand of white police officers (none of whom was indicted for their actions), this film seems more relevant than ever. Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s first feature-length film, based on real-life events that happened on New Year’s in 2009, was an immediate hit at last year’s Sundance Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Although focusing on the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, who was shot to death in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009 on a train platform called Fruitvale Station, this film is not so much a story about Grant, as it is a story about most African-Americans living in contemporary USA.
Film’s narrative begins on an early morning of December 31., introducing us to 22-years old Oscar Grant (played by the excellent Michael B. Jordan), his girlfriend Sophina and their daughter Tatiana. But what may seem like a “normal” day of any American family at first, soon turns out to be a portrayal of a difficult life the American racial minority lives. The whole family strives to live the life that most of the white Americans effortlessly get to live (without ever realizing their own luck and privilege) – we can see Oscar shopping for New Year’s family dinner and gifts for his mother’s birthday, we can see him dropping his incredibly sweet and smart daughter at day care and preparing for the night out with Sophina and his friends. But it is not long before the real life of the minority breaks into the story: a life of constant unemployment, poverty, illegal jobs and prison convictions. Grant was just let go from a job at the grocery store that he’s desperately trying to get back. After his former boss explains that he already hired somebody else, Grant’s starting to get desperate – after all, he has a daughter to support and a rent to pay. He starts to think of getting back to selling drugs, but after some serious consideration he decides against it, since selling pot already got him to serve time. The scene when he reflects on his previous life choices and his life in general, where he remembers his time in prison, is one of the most interesting things in Fruitvale Station. It manages to show us (in the most subtle way possible) how being in prison is a completely normal, natural life event for an African-American, while it is considered an excess when the same thing happens to someone who’s white. Yes, the same laws apply for us all – but we live in a society where not all people have the same options and opportunities in life. It doesn’t matter how hard-working they are and how much they’re struggling to climb through the obstacles of racial differences – most of them will sooner or later settle for an illegal job, because it will be the only job they could get, or the only job that will get them the means to survive. It is heartbreaking to hear Oscar’s answer to Sophina’s question “What will you do?”, after he decides he’s done with dealing: “Something legal.” It immediately makes you wonder if that’s even possible. He’s black, he’s an ex convict – does he actually has a chance of changing his life, of turning a new leaf? Will society let him do that?
This is not a film about racism of specific individuals – although there is no doubt that the police officer who shot Oscar in the back (supposedly incidentally, as he later claimed he meant to fire his teaser, but grabbed a gun instead) was racist. This film is, above all, about the American unjust system that systematically oppresses the African-American minority, who as a result of this constant oppression and inability to move upward on the social scale, becomes problematic, and quite frequently even violent.
While driving on a train back home after going to see New Year’s fireworks with his girlfriend and a group of friends, Grant unexpectedly runs into his enemy from prison, who punches him in the face and provokes a fight. When the train stops at Fruitvale Station and the police intervenes, they immediately pull all the African-Americans that were involved in a fight off the train – while they leave a (white) guy who started the whole thing, alone. After being pulled off a train, Grant and his friends, all unarmed, repeatedly explain they didn’t do anything wrong, that they were just trying to get back home, but they still get beaten and eventually arrested – and this is when Grant, lying face down, resisting arrest, gets shot in the back.
Unlike the two recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, where the police officers weren’t indicted (even though there were several cell phone videos that showed Brown being shot eight times with his arms raised, surrendering and Garner being choked to death, stating several times before dying that he can’t breathe), Johannes Mehserle was charged with second-degree murder and served 11 months in jail – which still doesn’t seem like a fair sentence, since he took a life (even if he didn’t mean to and was really just completely incompetent) and since, if the roles were reversed, Grant would get not only a life in prison, but quite possibly a death penalty.
As Jon Stewart said after hearing about the grand jury decision considering Eric Garner’s case: “We are definitely not living in a post-racial society and I can imagine there are a lot of people out there wondering how much of a society we’re living in at all.”
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 minutes