In the very early morning hours of January 1, 2009, a few weeks before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black President of the United States, a young black man named Oscar Grant, his fiancee Sophina Mesa, and their friends were returning to Oakland from San Francisco on the BART. As the train pulled into Fruitvale Station in West Oakland, a fight broke out in the lead car. The police stopped the train, pulled off anyone they believed had been involved in the brawl, or, to be more accurate, pulled off all the young, black men they believed had been involved in the brawl, and lined them up outside on the platform. One of the men they detained was Oscar Grant.
Over the next few days, a video began circulating on the Internet. Officer Johannes Mehserle, a two year veteran of the BART police is leaning over Grant, who had been wrestled to the ground. Whether or not Grant was already handcuffed has been the subject of some dispute, but there is no dispute about what happened next. Mehserle shot Grant in the back, and Oscar Grant would never see his 23rd birthday. He died 7 hours later at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Protests followed, then riots. Mehserle was arrested, charged with murder, plead not-guilty, and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. According to Wikipedia, the jury also found him guilty of a gun enhancement charge that “could have made him ineligible for probation,” but it was overturned by the judge at his sentencing hearing, and he was released after spending only 11 months in prison.
Fruitvale Station, starring Michael Jordan as Oscar Grant and Melonie Diaz as Sophina Mesa is such a well-made little movie, the script by recent USC graduate Ryan Coogler such an effective portrayal of Grant as a sympathetic every man that I came away wondering how anybody could have a reaction other than “fuck the police.” I even started looking at newspaper comments, those notorious cesspools of authoritarianism and racism, if only to see if anybody had managed to pry loose the evidence of any flaws. The only two negative reviews I could find were in the New York Post, of course, and Forbes. Since both reviews concentrated on nitpicking minor details, pointing out that Fruitvale station was a fictionalized drama, not a documentary, rather than attack the quality of the film itself, let’s take that as evidence that Fruitvale Station, while containing a bit of poetic license, succeeds beyond what one would expect from a 27-year-old first time director working with a largely unknown cast.
Michael Jordan is a bit like a black version of James Franco. He was an easygoing charm. If it doesn’t cover up his troubled past and lack of direction, it occasionally allows him to get away with it. Grant, who served 17 months in prison for a minor drug and weapons charge, is no saint. He lies to his girlfriend. He cheats on her. Occasionally, he loses his temper and makes threats. He gets fired at a local supermarket for being chronically late. After he goes back into work to beg for his job back, however, and winds up helping a confused white gentrifier do her shopping, we can also see that he had probably been a natural at customer service. The women in his life, mainly his mother and girlfriend, see Oscar exactly the way we do. They grow increasingly impatient with his repeated attempts to charm his way out of responsibility for his poor choices, but wind up taking him back every time he asks. Oscar, who has a little girl, is a loving father in spite of his youth. During a quietly intense flashback to his time in prison, his mother walks out of the visiting room after he gets into a shouting match with a hulking white prisoner who attempts to bully him, but we can see that his bluster is a necessary survival mechanism inside the prison industrial complex.
The gender politics of Fruitvale station reveal an unexpected depth to the reality of the black working class in America. Melonie Diaz portrays Sophina Mesa alternately as a ball buster and as a woman vulnerable to male charm. The transformation she goes through, from a woman impatient with a fiancee who’s less than a prize catch to a sense of devastating loss after he’s murdered is an accomplished feat of acting that I would have given a nomination for best actress. Oscar’s mother and grandmother are equally three dimensional. About halfway through Fruitvale Station, Oscar goes to his mother’s birthday party, where he see a group of middle-aged black men, the only ones we see in the film. They’re slim, polite, masculine, but thoroughly domesticated, and we realize that the women in Oscar Grant’s world have to maintain a fine balancing act. They want their husbands and sons to be masculine, to be men, but they also realize that being black, and masculine in Oakland in 2009 is potentially fatal. Success means keeping them alive, but it also means stripping them of their manhood, crippling the drive and self-control that would enable them to succeed under capitalism. Oscar is the confused product of those difficult choices, feminine vulnerability coexisting with masculine bluster, easy charm coexisting with bursts of aggression.
Early in the film, when Oscar stops for gas, and witnesses a stray pit bull killed by a hit and run driver, we get a sense of foreboding. Here, Coogler is heavy handed. The pit bull obviously symbolizes black masculinity, but Oscar’s reality is heavy handed. Black men, like pit bulls, are often treated with irrational cruelty, brutalized by the police, incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, precisely because, like pit bulls, they are often irrationally feared. The way Coogler stages Oscar Grant’s murder, while it may have the same effect as good agitprop — and I came out of this film hating the police — is anything but agitprop. The film even accepts Mehserle’s contention that he only handcuffed Grant after he shot him in the back. It’s a complex, nuanced, three dimensional scene that manages to convey every shade of what happened that night in Oakland. The gigantic white policeman who pulls Oscar out of the BART is brutal and one dimensional, a hard, vicious man without a trace of feminine softness, but Mehserle himself looks young and vulnerable, his blond hair falling down over his forehead giving him the appearance of a grown up preppy Lacrosse player.
When Oscar is murdered, when Mehserle shoots him in the back — and the film backs off taking a position on whether he thought he was reaching for his taser or not — it feels as if a little piece of our world just died. Oscar, as young and inadequate as he was, really is the center of this film, and of the world of both women who loved him as much as they found him exasperating. As the life ebbs out of his body as he pleads that he’s a father with a little girl, as the police who murdered him go from being contemptuous and domineering to being panicked and wracked with guilt, we realize how wrapped up in Oscar’s mind we had been for the previous hour, how skilfully Coogler made us see the world from his point of view. That point of view is no more. A life was snuffed out, and for no reason other than how our class system needs a brutal militarized police force to maintain its dominance, a blunt instrument, a juggernaut that occasionally crushes a universe inside a vulnerable human being without even stopping to notice. Indeed, what response can you have to this film other than “fuck the police.” Coogler has, without trying to produce agitprop, produced the best possible agitprop, a layered, nuanced portrait of a fundamentally unjust reality that needs to be abolished.