On January 1, 2009, a twenty-two-year-old man named Oscar Grant III died after been shot by BART officers in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale Station, part of the public transportation system. An ex-con, an ex-gang member, and an ex-drug user, Grant appears to have been working to better himself, care for his girlfriend, and raise his daughter. Fruitvale Station is director Ryan Coogler’s attempt to present the story of the last twenty-four hours of Grant’s life.
Grant doesn’t always get it right, but while Coogler doesn’t dwell on the gang affiliation, or the drugs, or the time served behind bars, the camera doesn’t try to present us with a saccharine view of our protagonist. You can’t miss the efforts that he’s going to as he tries to be a better husband, father, son, and citizen. He’s disavowed himself from the gang life, and trying to get himself a better job; he’s made amends with his mother (Octavia Spencer) and seems intent on telling the truth to his wife (Melonie Diaz), even when it hurts.
The fight that precipitates the final confrontation comes out of the blue, but it’s clearly tied to Grant’s past. It’s not his fault, and it doesn’t seem race-related (even though his death has more than a fingerprint of racial profiling attached to it). I wrote this in July about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin conflict, and the lack of justice I felt in the “wrap-up” there. Watching Fruitvale Station probably made me feel even worse, because it at the very least appears that Grant is targeted while others are not, and that his death is deemed “accidental” but wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t targeted first.
No matter how you see the ‘facts’ of the case, Oscar Grant shouldn’t have died in the early morning of January 1, 2009. On a day when most of us celebrate new starts and changed lives, Grant was destroyed, murdered, ended, senselessly. Jordan is exquisite in playing Grant, as a multifaceted son, husband, and father, and would potentially be at the Oscars if not for the other racial statement film, 12 Years a Slave (review here.) It’s sad there seems to be a log-jam there (no The Butler either?) when each of the movies has a legitimate story to tell.
I found myself thinking that I was blessed to be born white, with parents who were able to provide for me and educate me. It’s still a privileged life, even in 2014 when we’re all supposed to understand that “all men are created equal… with unalienable rights.” But I’m also grateful that I don’t live every day worrying about whether my past catches up to me or whether someone will recognize me and my life will unravel in a moment. I am blessed because Jesus died on the cross and set me free from my sins, but I continue to see consequences from my past that I have to deal with. For me, it’s enough to know I’m forgiven, and I have the grace to rely on when a consequence shows up. But it’s time we worked harder to make sure that others get the same opportunity to be free from their pasts, spiritually and consequentially.
It’s one of our “unalienable rights.”