Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 1, 2013
It’s ironic and sad that “Fruitvale Station” appeared in movie theaters just days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and our first “post-racial” president went on the air to describe, so movingly, the continuing difficulties of being black in a white man’s world.
The movie, based on a true story, opens with cell phone video clips of a group of young black men handcuffed and subdued on the platform of the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. It is early New Year’s morning of 2009 and there has been a ruckus on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train that has gotten out of hand. The young men are detained. They are angry and there is a lot of shouting and crowd noise. Suddenly a shot is heard.
The movie, the debut effort from writer/director Ryan Coogler, is a reconstruction of the previous day – the last – in the life of Oscar Grant, the shooting victim.
As portrayed by Michael B. Jordan (veteran of the popular TV series “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”), Oscar is a likeable if occasionally hot-headed young man, trying hard to do his best in the sometimes hostile world of inner-city Oakland. On this routine day he cares for his young daughter Tatiana and spends time with Sophina, his girlfriend. He shops for a card for his mother’s birthday and attends her festive party with assorted aunts and uncles. He argues, fruitlessly, with his former boss to get his job back. Desperate for rent money he plans a drug deal, and then, struggling to do the right thing, decides not to go through with it.
Oscar’s life is portrayed in an unsentimental though sometimes heavy-handed manner. At her party his mom asks him what he is doing that night, and he says he plans to drive into the city with some friends to watch the fireworks. “Why don’t you take the train,” she suggests. “It’s safer than driving.” Later he assures his daughter Tatiana that the gunshots she thinks she hears outside are fireworks, and she will be fine spending the night with her cousins. “What about you daddy?” she asks. He promises her when she wakes up in the morning, they will spend a special day together.
But the audience knows from the first scene that Oscar will not survive the night, and the film’s relentless advance toward the final tragedy is both suspenseful and deeply depressing.
For viewers whose tastes run to mindless escapism and light entertainment, “Fruitvale Station” is a movie to miss. But it is not hard to see why it won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is an unstinting depiction of a young man’s struggle with being poor and black in America, and in the not-so-random violence visited on him, a painful portrait of urban life that still falls far short of what the president, in his address, described as the long and difficult journey toward America’s “more perfect union.”