Sparked by the events of May 25th, 2020, the United States has erupted in fury over the unjust killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black male who died of asphyxiation at the hands of the arresting officer. Cities around the world have seen protests standing in solidarity with dozens of marches in the States. But this isn’t the first time such a crime has been committed. It sadly wasn’t even the last. But if there was ever a film that speaks about race, injustice and being black in America, Fruitvale Station-a film already relevant when it came out in 2013, suddenly feels a lot more important today.
The movie is directed by Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed) and stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African American from Hayward, California. The film showcases the final day of Grant’s life before he was tragically killed on New Years Day, 2009 at point-blank range while he was cuffed on the platform. The film would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2013 and is a painful look into what has happened to so many African American’s in the United States.
[Credit: Significant Productions]
Grant is far from a perfect being-he’s depicted here as I’m sure he was in real life: flawed. He isn’t faithful to his partner, who is also the mother of his child and he even considers returning to his life of selling weed after he loses his job at the grocery store. He has served time in jail, but the movie shows he absolutely loves his daughter and his mother. He is trying to live a better life, if not for him then for his daughter. When he takes possession of the dope, he realizes he can’t go back to that life and ultimately tosses the stash. It’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction in the first three-quarters of the movie, but none the less, Grant wasn’t a menace to society. For all his flaws, they are not motive for a police officer to shoot the unarmed Grant. To drill home the impending doom that will lurk over the plot, the movie opens up with actual cell phone footage of the event.
Already, the narrative sounds familiar I’m sure to the headlines you’ve been seeing over the past week and a bit. Like reality, Fruitvale can be difficult to watch but it’s important to see and to try to understand what’s going on here. Most of the movie might seem trivial and even boring at first glance. Not much really happens in the final hours of Grants life-and that’s the point. He’s not in shootouts or planning robberies. He’s picking his daughter up from daycare. He’s buying a birthday card for his mom, played by Octavia Spencer, and subsequently hanging out with her. He’s chilling with his family. He comes under heat from his girlfriend who discovers his infidelity but they work it out and he still drops her off to work and plans to hang out that night with their friends. Being New Year’s Eve, Grant and his crew wanted to head into town and watch the fireworks at midnight. Pretty normal, all things considered. In other words, Grant is showcased by Coogler and Jordan as being grounded and, well, human. Because of Grant’s day, which showcases his highs and his lows, the outcome on the platform, where he was assaulted by a fellow convict who recognized him from his time in jail, feels uncalled for and unexpected in such an ultimately banal day.
I think the decision to show the ending of the movie right out of the gate was a wise one as not only is there this dark cloud hanging over his final day, but the outcome becomes more tense thanks to the knowledge that it ends in tragedy. If we were left wondering, I’m not sure it would have the same effect. But because we know, we’re made to feel scared, worried and horrified for the entire duration of the lengthy-and difficult to watch-scene on the platform. Part of what sells the tension and the sort of empathy is how good Michael B. Jordan is. He looks so alive when he’s with his daughter for instance but on the platform, his anger and fear are palpable. He just wants to go home.
Likewise, Spencer is tough on Grant and a flashback scene from his time in prison is brutal when she says she’s essentially done with him due to him throwing his life away. Grant comes out of prison and does try to change his life and Spencer’s no-nonsense yet loving mother is likely to thank for Oscar’s attempt at a new life. The clip, which I’ve embedded above for your benefit, shows Spencer as a mother who is tired of seeing her son throw his life away. She will not be witness to his downfall and it’s likely that his moment in his life, whether fictional or not, was the catalyst for his reformation. Spencer’s performance in this scene alone is heartbreaking and powerful. There’s no doubt that the angry, confrontation Grant we see in this flashback scene is quite different than the one we know for the duration of the movie, which suggests that yes, he was making steps towards a new life.
The entire platform sequence will raise your heart rate. Because you know the outcome, we’re watching to see just how it happened. We feel like we’re there on the platform with Grant, that our lives are no longer safe. Despite being in a fight with a white convict, that man is no where to be seen on the platform. Oscar and his friends are all forced to sit down on the platform as they protest. The main cop, whose name was changed in the movie, uses racial slurs against Oscar to antagonize him, forcing him into anger and humiliation. Like George Floyd, the officer’s knee is pressed against the back of Grant’s neck while he’s pinned to the ground. The second officer, played by Chad Michael Murray, who would claim he meant to grab his taser, then shoots Oscar while he’s cuffed and pinned to the ground. His final words reveal to the officers he has a daughter, the only thing on this mind at that moment. The movie tries to showcase that Grant was taking the first steps towards reformation. Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter, but it does serve to make the plot and the outcome more layered and painful. When the shot rings out and the camera cuts to Grant’s face, frozen in fear and realization, to his friends on the platform staring in disbelief to his girlfriend’s on the street below, hearing the echo of the gunshot above and nothing else, the weight of the scene is monumental.
Fruitvale Station showcases the flawed man that was Oscar Grant III. I don’t think Ryan Coogler has made a martyr out of Grant. He made some bad decisions in his life and paid the consequences in jail. But the movie also shows that he did normal, relatable things as well and that he was perhaps on the way to fixing his life. But no matter what you may have thought of the individual, the outcome is a hard reality check that this sort of situation happens a lot and it’s unjustified. Grant was already in cuffs, the officer had no reason to shoot him. The impact of the violence leaves you feeling violated, which is exactly what Coogler was likely aiming for. Grant had a fairly human day, full of trials and quiet moments. You may never experience a situation like this, but you can maybe gain a microscopic understanding of what it’s like to be on that platform thanks to this movie.
We have another article which looks into the Central Park Five and the Marcus Nelson Murders which you can read here.