On Dec. 31, 2008, and into the wee hours of the following day, Oscar Julius Grant III of Oakland, Calif., took his girlfriend to work. He played with his daughter. He picked up some food for his mother’s birthday party, and later went to that party. He tried to straighten out some glitches in his life — to get back a job he had lost, and to stop dealing dope. He helped a couple of strangers. He marked the new year with his girlfriend and some friends.
It was, in some ways, a really ordinary time. In other ways, it was very important, indicating that the young African-American was going to try — though not for the first time — to improve his lot and help his family more. But all the things that happened then took on added resonance because it was the last time Grant did any of them. In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Grant and some friends were rousted by a group of white San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit officers following a scuffle on a commuter train. Unarmed, subdued by officers, and lying down, Grant was shot in the back and killed. He was 22 years old.
Investigations ensued, with witnesses saying the disturbance on the train was minor, and that at least one officer was extremely aggressive in the incident, aggression that was evident in camera-phone videos of the incident. Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot Grant, later said that he had mistaken his gun for his Taser; he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years. There were protests, and promises of reform. And, as the new film Fruitvale Station observes, someone had to answer the last question in the movie: Grant’s daughter Tatiana asking, “Where’s daddy?”
That is the most painful question to be asked in the wake of Grant’s death.
When a case like Grant’s, or that of Trayvon Martin, arises, for every voice claiming that an injustice has been committed there is another claiming that the victim deserved his fate. Martin, in that latter view, was not an unarmed young man being pursued by an overzealous neighborhood watchman but a tough and menacing thug. Those who wanted to defend the actions of the BART officers in Grant’s case could point to the victim’s sometimes wayward life and his criminal record as justification for rough justice.
Others will undoubtedly stress the racial components of both cases, the victims young African-American men whose deaths seemed to matter little in American justice — Zimmerman found not guilty, Mehserle getting a light sentence. But, again, we are looking at big questions. Fruitvale Station at once thinks smaller, its haunting question again being what has happened to a little girl’s father, and larger, by putting Grant in a more complex world than one issue can contain.
The feature-film directing debut of Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the script, Fruitvale Station does not dramatize much of what happened after Grant’s death, summarizing the public events in on-screen text. It does not ask what motivated the officers in the confrontation and shooting, instead just showing what happened then and in a hasty cover-up as Grant lay bleeding.
Instead, the film wants to see who and what the victim, Grant, was, to underscore how seemingly random and unnecessary his death was.
As written by Coogler and played by Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), Grant is not without flaws. He has lost his job for being late to work, and has kept that news from his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He is making money by dealing marijuana — although the film indicates that he wants to quit, even when he has no other source of income. He has been in jail. He has not been consistently faithful to Sophina.
We have no idea whether Grant can get over his past and begin anew. We only know that he wants to. After all, he most wants to please all the people around him, whether they are strangers he helps out or those closest to him.
In a flashback to Grant in jail, he is most hurt when his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) says that Tatiana believes Grant prefers being on “vacation” to spending time with the little girl. He takes the BART train on New Year’s Eve because his mother — worried that he will drink and drive — asks him to.
He constantly, blandly assures people that all is well in his life even when things are going wrong. All of this is shown documentary-style by Coogler, who lets the grit of Grant’s Oakland days be felt, and who knows that the people in Grant’s world think often about race (including when deciding what football team to root for, and what’s the best image on a birthday card). At the same time, though, Coogler wants to show that nothing is simple in Grant’s world, including race; there are a couple of scenes where interaction is easy, and the outrage over Grant’s shooting crosses racial lines.
In it starkness and simplicity, and even with some dramatic license, Fruitvale Station marks the arrival of a strong new filmmaker in Coogler. Jordan gets the uncertainty and dreaminess in Grant, while being equally able to make his occasional bursts of anger feel real. Spencer, an Oscar winner for The Help, captures Wanda’s love, fear for her son and firmness when he strays. Diaz similarly gets that Sophina cares for Grant — but is impatient with his waywardness. Unfortunately, as Fruitvale Station shows, Grant never got the chance to straighten out.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.