Normally, when I write one of these “Reframe” pieces, I re-watch the film I’m about to cover. That’s not true of Fruitvale Station. It’s not that I didn’t intend to, it’s simply that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. With what’s going on in our country—the endless killing of black people by police and the protests that have followed—I felt some sense of responsibility to write about a film that urgently reflects our current times.
Fruitvale Station immediately came to mind. I’ve only seen the film once, way back in the late summer of 2013, when it was released. I went into the theater alone for an afternoon matinee. It was a devastating experience. More so than the film even promised before I took my seat.
What director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan accomplished with Fruitvale Station was bold, urgent, and impossibly sad.
Try as I might, and as great as it is, I simply don’t have the courage to watch it again. I can’t sit through this 85 minute film a second time because the pain of the black experience is too heavy for me to bear. I repeat, for me, a white man, to bear. I suppose that makes me a bit chickenshit. I’ll own that.
So, I’m going to write about Fruitvale Station from memory. Which may mean I’ll leave out moments of significance in the film that deserve greater focus and discussion. I apologize in advance for that. This is the best I can do.
No one knew who Ryan Coogler was when Fruitvale Station was released almost seven years ago. His leading man, Michael B. Jordan, had found a solid measure of success on television by playing the tragic Wallace on The Wire and the stud quarterback from the rough side of town on Friday Night Lights.
There was nothing that was known about either of them that could have prepared a moviegoer for Fruitvale Station.
In telling the true story of Oscar Grant, Coogler (who also wrote the screenplay) takes a deceptively simple approach. The entire film is just a day in the life. Oscar argues with his girl, tries to get his job back at a grocery store, has a sad chance encounter with a stray dog, celebrates his mom’s (the great Octavia Spencer) birthday at her house—normal stuff for the most part. Except for one particularly salient fact: this “day in the life” is Oscar Grant’s last.
It’s New Year’s Eve in Hayward, California. Oscar is a wayward young man. He wants to do better for his girlfriend, his daughter, and for himself. He has a record, to go along with some bad habits, that are holding him back. Oscar is good-hearted, even if he isn’t always good.
He can feel a sense of urgency—the need to do better. Much of the film is about his implicit and explicit promise to try. He makes up with his girlfriend and they decide to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to enjoy the fireworks. On their way back home on the BART train, a former fellow inmate recognizes Oscar and picks a fight with him.
The scrap is broken up without major incident when the BART police arrive. What was a minor altercation then turns into a murder that was captured on the cell phones of several bystanders at the station.
The police pull Oscar off the train and onto the station platform. It’s clear that the officers are far too keyed-up—despite their training and the fact that they are the ones holding guns, they seem far more anxious than the young black man they are menacing. That’s not to say that Oscar isn’t scared—he is. It’s more to say that he’s probably seen this type of thing before and he’s trying to find a way out without getting harmed.
He isn’t able to do that. One officer loses his cool, becomes inscrutably threatened, turns Oscar over onto his stomach, and deposits a bullet into his back.
I knew this story before I walked into the theater. I was aware of the outcome before I bought the ticket. I was not prepared to see it. There is a look on Michael B. Jordan’s face that I will never forget after his character is shot and feels the life draining out of him.
“How could this happen to me? I was cooperating.” And most tragically, in his eyes, you can see the realization coming over him…”I’m going to die.”
It’s impossible to think of this movie and not consider the recent fate of George Floyd. A man who was not resisting, who was trying to find the words to save his own life from someone whose job is to “protect and serve” the public.
George Floyd never found those words.
Neither did Philando Castille.
Neither did Michael Brown.
Neither did Eric Garner.
Neither did John Crawford.
Neither did Walter Scott.
Neither did Freddie Gray.
Neither did Tamir Rice.
Neither did Oscar Grant.
When white people ask, “why are they in the streets? There’s a pandemic. They are risking their lives.”
I think it’s because their every day is very different than our every day. Their every day begins with the possibility of something happening to them that white folks like us never need to worry about. I don’t know how you plan your day around that.
I don’t have any trouble imagining why they are in those streets. It’s because the threat of death looms over them with every waking hour. I suppose it gets god damn hard living that way. When you feel you’ve got nothing to lose, and that what this country promises to others is not promised to you, then maybe you push past being scared.
Maybe you forget about a virus that could snatch your breath. Because long after the threat of COVID-19 is gone, the red and white and blue disease of racism will remain. Fruitvale Station artfully, masterfully, and unflinchingly tells just one story about our national affliction.
But there are so many more. And they keep on coming. The fact is, they never stop.
That’s why protesters are in the streets. To demand that black lives matter.