Where were you when Oscar Grant was shot? More than likely, you don’t recall the name or place. You may remember the moment when you discovered Bin Laden was killed or the news that Michael Jackson was found overmedicated. Not Oscar, though — an unknown face in the crowd. After seeing Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” his will became an inescapable visage, a sketch of racial prejudice in America, but above all, a portrait of that human mark representing us all.
Oscar’s death is, in the scope of the factual film, predetermined. The opening shots of “Fruitvale” encase the endpoint. They belong to a shaky cell phone video that captures the final moments of Oscar’s life. Pinned against the wall of an Oakland train station, he and a group of friends — all black minorities — are targeted and bowed to BRAT police officers, antemeridian New Years 2009. Confrontation is inevitable and chaos ensues. But as Oscar attempts to reason, he is forced to the ground, cuffed and fatally shot by an officer without visible or moral justification.
All this occurs within the first minute of the film, but everything remains to tell. Oscar had a life, stolen by an act of untenable, sad brutality and disguised as a daily deed.
“Fruitvale” is Coogler’s directional debut and is not unconsciously released in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. But “Fruitvale” is no mere homage to the Travyon scenario. He is a remarkable story in himself — remembered for his harrowing conclusion but supported by the significance of being a father, friend and fighter.
The film follows Oscar (played with a heroic humanity by Michael B. Jordan) in the 24 hours of New Year’s Eve before that ultimate and previously witnessed shooting. We, as the audience, are aware of what is to come. But watching Oscar beyond the veil of viral video, we are warmed at his courage, troubled by his weaknesses and defeated under the ominous knowledge that we, like bystanders, can do nothing to subvert his Fruitvale fate. Interactive cinematography knows all too well how to relegate us to the sideline too, often trailing Oscar’s path from behind his shoulder, watching his back. But it’s the front that Oscar faces alone.
We are already privy to the ugly themes that slither along the Bay Area’s city streets: racial profiling, the race against poverty, the collective failures of societal systems and the individual burdens of careless action. For Coogler, their presence is like blood smeared on a camera lens. Recall the symbolic mutt murdered outside the gas station. It is not the perpetrators that take responsibility for running it down, but Oscar, who carries its whimpering body into death.
So shines a good deed in a weary world, but there are no prayers, faux accountability. And to our linguistic dismay, it is not long before Oscar himself is shot down like a dog.
Yet, we cherish our time with Oscar. Playtime with his daughter, the most cherished of treasures, or his mother’s birthday, he is surrounded by that fulfilling, familial love. Here, the power of family cannot be understated (for Octavia Spencer, the most sturdy of matriarchs, is crippled to tears at the sight of her son under a blanket).
Even small acts of kindness from strangers are brought to light, insignificant as they are. For kindnesses, in their infrequent glory, are those binding sentiments that make Oscar’s life worth recounting firsthand: there’s a palpable goodness in the world, all it needs is a chance to act.
This bridges at the nexus of Coogler’s most fundamental point, namely, that Oscar and the audience are looking for a fresh start — a way out of what appears inevitable and a way “to just get home.” That line was uttered by one of Oscar’s friends during their detainment in the station, and it still rings true.
Oscar’s life is a complicated medley encompassing prison time and lost jobs, but also the desire for a clean slate. His aspirations and setbacks are human. They are empathized with but socially unanswered. But that necessity of opportunity — at its darkest, merely to live — must be given in a society functioning on too many human components to be considered self-correcting. Only our most selfish impulses negate that promise.
Oscar’s death could have been prevented. It should have been prevented. But in the toppling of existential dominoes, the destination was set without his consent. This is the theft of New Year’s resolutions. This is the last stop at Fruitvale Station and consequently the last stop at our ethical frustrations. How promising Oscar was, would be and how much an audience came to know him — how little some home-bound passengers would know him but would grieve at the glimpse of witnessed violence poured and unwarranted outside their midnight window. There is no real atonement, not for Oscar, his loved ones or those like him. There are only witnesses to spread the word. How we explain that to those like Oscar’s now fatherless daughter is unclear, but it is clearly our responsibility.
At some point while we wait for Oscar’s end, Coogler gives us an angle: a shot of Oscar entering the train, the doors closing and without moving the camera, a view of the cars passing by, faster and faster reeling like film until we are left with an arresting silence and still. That still is how we leave a story like Oscar’s, alone and reflective on the saddest of truths. But remember it as a plea, if anything, that Oscar was here with us once, he was human and he was the best and worst of us all.