Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, who died on a sidewalk in Staten Island after being dragged to the ground by a police officer with his arm around Garner’s neck and held down by four officers until he lost consciousness after repeating “I can’t breathe” 11 times. His death was ruled a homicide, and this week New York City settled with Garner’s family for $5.9 million. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.
Among various recent controversial cases of unarmed black males killed by police, from 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland to 25-year-old Freddy Gray of Baltimore, Garner’s death was notable for having been captured on smartphone video — like that of Oscar Grant III, another black male who was killed on a concrete public walkway while being restrained by police.
Grant was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer on January 1, 2009, just hours into the new year, while lying face down on an elevated BART platform at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. The officer later testified that he believed he was holding his Taser rather than his duty weapon, which seems an astonishing mistake to make, even before raising the question of the necessity of tasing a detainee lying on his face surrounded by police officers. The officer was convicted for involuntary manslaughter and served two years in protective custody.
I recently rewatched Fruitvale Station (2013), first-time director Ryan Coogler’s shattering Sundance winner, with my oldest son, who has since gotten his driver’s license. Some day he will face that inevitable first traffic stop, and I want him to be aware just how different that encounter will be for him, with his bleached complexion and shining towheaded crown, than for many young men in the minority neighborhoods all around us.
This is not hypothetical: This very week two officers in our town’s police force were scheduled begin trial over a 2012 incident in which a young black motorist was stopped, dragged from his car, assaulted, and arrested on false charges of resisting arrest, only to be exonerated by police car dashcam video. (The trial has been postponed.) I worry about my son every time he gets behind the wheel, but I don’t worry about anything like this, like other parents in my neighborhood do.
Filmed in a naturalistic style, Fruitvale Station offers an imaginative depiction of the last hours of Oscar Grant’s life, with a charismatic leading performance by Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights”; the upcoming Fantastic Four). The film offers a largely sympathetic though not unmixed portrait of Grant, an ex-con and sometime seller of marijuana whom the film depicts trying to straighten out his life and do the right thing by his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal).
The opening scene establishes that Sophina knows that Oscar hasn’t always been faithful to her, but he insists that’s over. Oscar is not, though, completely honest with Sophina; for instance, he hasn’t told her he lost his job at a grocery store.
He stops by the store hoping to beg to get his job back, and a chance interaction at the deli counter with a customer, a woman named Katie, indicates people skills that would be an asset in the service industry. The racial and gender politics of this crucial scene are instructive: Oscar notices a pretty, white suburban woman looking indecisively at her options, and offers to help. To her uncertain, hesitant look, Oscar reassures her that he’s an employee; she glances questioningly at the black employee behind the counter, who offers a confirming nod. At that, Katie relaxes and turns to Oscar, asking his advice about frying fish; as the extent of her cluelessness comes out, Oscar actually calls his grandmother on his cellphone and puts her on with the customer for real expert advice.
From Katie’s perspective, a young, unknown black man on the near side of the deli counter talking to her is an intimidating presence; a black man on the far side of the counter wearing an apron is a safe, trustworthy one. When the latter vouches for the former, that makes Oscar trustworthy too. If you are tempted to protest that this doesn’t make Katie a racist, you’re missing the point. The point is the sort of constant challenge that Oscar faces every day of his life because of the color of his skin.
Moments later, though, there’s a flash of something darker than anything else we see in Oscar as he desperately tries a threat of violence against his former boss in a vain effort to get his job back. (The film establishes that Oscar lost his job due to repeated tardiness.) A flashback of Oscar in prison offers another dark moment as Oscar pathetically disses his longsuffering, devout mother (Octavia Spencer) for her tough love. The portrayal of Oscar’s mother’s faith, particularly after her son has been shot, is one of the more striking depictions of religion in recent American cinema.
Oscar lives with a level of tension and contradiction in his life: We see him in different settings as a loving boyfriend, father and son; as a petty criminal; as a bright, helpful young man; as a desperate unemployed man with few options. At a fateful moment late in the film two of these incompatible settings unexpectedly collide, with catastrophic results. Oscar can be the bright, helpful young man Katie met at the deli counter and the petty criminal who has done time, but not both at the same time.
Fruitvale Station has been criticized for painting too rosy a picture of Oscar, which may be true to an extent, but not to a degree that damages the film’s credibility. (Oscar’s family says that he was trying to turn his life around; he even had plans to go to barber school, a detail omitted in the film. Even the incident at the deli counter with Oscar calling his grandmother for a customer is based in fact.)
The picture that emerges from Fruitvale Station is of a young man with potential and a number of strikes against him, at least one of which was reckoned against him before he had done anything good or bad. By the time Oscar found himself on that BART platform surrounded by police, he was in a dire situation — one in which, like Eric Garner one year ago, there was no margin of error for anyone involved.
If I were stopped by a police officer, and I made a mistake or the officer made a mistake or both, I might wind up with a ticket I might not have deserved; in a worst case scenario, I might possibly be detained awhile. Oscar Grant and Eric Garner wound up dead. Watching Fruitvale Station underscores for me how different my experience is from others. It’s bad enough that the world offers some a head start on relatively smooth roads to success while others struggle on harder, obscure paths that may or may not go anywhere at all. Even so, we need to work to build a world that works better for those on the harder paths.
Oscar Grant just might be the most memorable character I’ve encountered on the big screen this year.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.