By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“Fruitvale Station.” Directed by Ryan Coogler; starring Michael B. Jordan, Olivia Spencer, and Melonie Diaz
“Fruitvale Station” is filmmaker and director Ryan Coogler’s first work and is as polished as any seasoned Hollywood filmmaker’s. He opens his film with the authentic, jumpy, low resolution of the cell-phone videos taken by passengers of the killing of Oscar Grant III by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer that early New Year’s morning. Towards the end, Coogler recreates the scene fictionally, capturing the verisimilitude of the original.
Coincidently, the film hit the theaters about the same time that George Zimmerman, the self-styled neighborhood security cop, was awarded a not-guilty verdict for shooting and killing the unarmed Black youth Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“Fruitvale Station” is a docu-drama, a fictionalized account of Grant’s murder on Jan. 1, 2009, by BART cop Johannes Mehserle (whose identity is not revealed in the film). The film shows him shooting Grant in the back as he lay prone and handcuffed on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station.
Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, who has Denzel Washington’s charm and winning smile. He, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and mother of his four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (a delightful, natural Ariana Neal), and their friends were on their way home on a BART train from the New Year’s Eve fireworks in San Francisco. An altercation broke out, and while the train was stopped at Fruitvale Station, BART police arrived and ordered Grant and his friends off the train. What followed was a brutal attack along with undue harassment and beating by the cops on innocent people, which ended with Grant’s death.
Grant insisted that they weren’t doing anything. The audience in the theater, including me, involuntarily gasped and cried out in disbelief when the shot was heard that killed Grant, even though we knew the outcome. The camera stayed on Grant’s face as it registered his confusion. You felt him thinking, “This can’t be happening.”
Though we saw the scene captured by cell phone at the beginning of the film, Coogler’s recreation of it towards the end has more impact in that he allowed us to get to know Grant during the 24 hours before he was killed. Heartbreaking. We see him with Sophina, playing with Tatiana, taking her to preschool; and in a fictional scene he’s caring for a dog that had been hit by a car. Also, there’s a joyous celebration for his mother’s birthday with grandparents, siblings, and kids. Coogler makes it feel as though we’re there.
Grant was not blemish-free. During the hours before his death, we learn that he had lost his job but pretended he was still working and threatened his ex-boss when he tried to get it back; lied to his girlfriend about seeing other women; and sold marijuana to make money. In a scene by the bay, as Grant waits for his contact, he reflects on his time in San Quentin (shown in flashback) and how it affected his mother, Wanda—beautifully played by Olivia Spencer—his girlfriend, and their daughter. In that scene, Jordan lets you witness Oscar Grant’s epiphany; he’s that good an actor. He made his New Year’s resolution, but Mehserle kept him from realizing it.
As of this writing, an appeals court has granted the Oscar Grant family the right to sue the BART police officer for killing their son.
Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin are symbols for the young Black men in America who, more frequently than any other group, are subjected to killings and beatings by “law enforcement” officials. This must change.