The opening scene of Fruitvale Station is actual footage of Oscar Grant’s shooting at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station in Oakland, CA. The footage is a shaky cell phone video that makes it hard to hear and see what’s going on the whole time. Then the gun is fired, the screen goes black and all you hear are the screams of the people who were in that train station. It’s jolting, despite the fact that most people going into this movie likely have at least some knowledge of Oscar Grant’s murder on New Years Day, 2009.
Fruitvale follows the final day of Grant’s life. This is not some perfect man, and nothing about the script, casting or way the movie is shot intend to show him as being a saint. What I liked most was that we see Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) for all that he is. This is a young man who’s been through a lot and he’s had his fair share of fuck ups. He has trouble keeping his hot temper under control and he’s occasionally violent. Oscar also has a lot of love. We see him helping a girl figure out which fish to fry for her boyfriend (thanks to a little help from his Grandma Bonnie) and we see him carry an injured dog off the road and tell it everything will be okay before it dies. It’s his Mom Wanda’s birthday and we see him trying to convince her to skip out on work and have a day out with her son. He gives his daughter Tatiana a fruit snack he snuck away when he drops her off at pre-school and later when he picks her up they race back to the car in a scene that’s beautiful and devastating because we as the audience know what’s coming.
This isn’t a perfect man. But we do get a sense that this is a man who is finally coming to realize that his mistakes can’t be the whole of his life and he seems to be on the brink of changing, despite how hard that is to do.
Oscar, his girlfriend Sophina and their daughter go to Wanda’s house to celebrate her birthday. They eat gumbo, laugh, spend time together and then Wanda tells Oscar not to drive to San Francisco to see the fireworks but to take the train instead. Like any good mom out there, she warns him to do what she says and not make her follow him to make sure of it. Octavia Spencer plays Wanda in a way that was so familiar to me. She won’t speak to Oscar on the phone while he’s driving until she’s convinced he’s wearing an earpiece. In an earlier flashback she visits Oscar in prison where he nearly gets into a fight with another inmate in front of her. She tells him to get himself together for the sake of Tatiana and then says she can’t visit him anymore. When he tells her she’s never been on his side she holds back the tears and walks away. She’s that mom that everyone deserves to have; full of tough love and such intense hope for her child, despite every dumb thing they’ve ever done. Hearing her insist that Oscar take the train, knowing what we know, is enough to make your stomach turn.
They drop Tatiana off with a babysitter and then take the train. There’s dancing, drinking, typical New Years Eve celebrations. On the way home everything seems to happen all at once. Oscar runs into the girl he had helped earlier that day in the grocery store and we see his girlfriend Sophina watching their conversation from across the train car. Next a man comes through the crowd and starts to confront Oscar. It’s the man we saw Oscar nearly come to blows with earlier in the prison flashback. Things escalate quickly and when the police start coming, Oscar tries to get back on the train and avoid them. Eventually one officer gets onto the train and drags Oscar out and throws him on the ground next to his friends. There are threats from the police, taser guns being pointed at Oscar and his friends-all while everyone on the train is watching.
Suddenly Oscar is pinned to the train station floor and then there’s that gunshot. Blood starts to pool from his mouth and while he lays there shocked, the police scramble around worried more about getting the train doors shut than they are dealing with Oscar. He’s rushed to the hospital and soon after Sophina, Wanda and his friends gather in the waiting room. They pray, they hope for the best and they wait. We momentarily flashback to earlier in the day when Oscar and his daughter were hugging and laughing. It’s enough to make you want to scream. When the Doctor comes in with the news that Oscar didn’t make it, everyone falls to pieces. There are people hitting walls, crying, yelling. And then there’s Wanda, calmly asking to go see him. She needs to see her baby. She begs to hold him one last time and when she’s looking at his body on the table she says “I told him to take the train”.
The film closes with Sophina and Tatiana in the shower. Tatiana asks where Daddy is. We cut to that black screen again and that’s it. There is no closure. Oscar Grant was 22 years old when he was murdered by a police office who’s defense was that he thought he pulled out his taser gun.
Fruitvale Station is hard to watch, but it needs to be seen.