Arriving in theaters just weeks after the Trayvon Martin verdict put the issue of racial profiling back into the news, the film Fruitvale Station looks at another incident involving an unarmed black man who was killed. Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old Oakland, California who, on Jan.1, 2009, was riding the subway with friends when a scuffle broke out on the train. Police were called in to break up the melee. Grant was wrestled to the ground and pinned by two police cops. One of them, Off. Johannes Mehserle, said, according to a witness, “Get back, I’m going to taze him.”
Mehserle then drew his service firearm and shot Grant once in the back.
Captured on a cell phone camera, the incident led to a tidal wave of controversy. Some onlookers viewed the shooting as an execution of a citizen by law enforcement. Others, however, viewed it as an unfortunate accident involving an officer expecting simply to taze Grant but shot him instead. The officers were convicted of manslaughter and served 11 months.
The last 24-hours of Grant’s life are depicted in the film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant.
Going into the film, filmmakers faced two distinct challenges: how does one dramatize the events of a life in which everyone in the audience knows will end before the film’s conclusion? And second: how do you balance showing respect to Grant’s family and his supporters cinematically while also remaining accurate to his biography?—Grant had felony convictions for drug dealing and resisting arrest.
The film partially succeeds at the first, but doesn’t at the second.
The film’s opens with the actual YouTube video of the police shooting. It then settles into its story, showing that while Grant surely may have had issues he is ultimately a really terrific guy. One of those issues depicted early in the film is his girlfriend calling him out for having an affair but forgiving him only minutes later.
There’s also a scene where he tends to a dog struck by a truck, and yet another moment where he helpfully aids a woman buying fish in a supermarket. The movie is so intent on showing how great Grant was, that it begins to feel manipulative. Granted, it does depict his flaws as well.
There are several scenes of his violent temper flaring up, and his stint in prison, though the movie never explains why he was incarcerated. He’s shown in the film distributing marijuana on the side “to feed his daughter.” But these scenes are never analyzed with any real scrutiny. They’re either quickly explained away or followed by other scenes of Grant being a great guy. It’s as if the movie cares more about getting the audience to like Grant and dislike the police, thereby setting up the concluding moments of his death.
This may work for propaganda films, but they are far less effective in character studies, and the portrayal of the cops in the film was laughably broad. There’s no question what side the filmmakers were on, but would it have been so bad to respect the audience enough to form its own conclusions?
I will admit that the actual scene of Grant’s confrontation with police on the train platform was undeniably moving. I looked around the theater during the scene and failed to see a dry eye in the house, including the men.
The performances by the main cast are universally solid. Jordan is very effective as Grant and Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Grant’s mother, Wendy. Melonie Diaz is strong as his girlfriend, Sophina. But they are let down by a script that mostly forces them to act in response to Grant’s behavior (good or bad), versus offering any real depth.
Fruitvale Station is a good film, and a time capsule of an incident involving race relations and social media. But it could have probed deeper into the world it was portraying.
Actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot by a police officer in 2009, in the film.