Fruitvale Station doesn't hide Oscar's prison record, in fact it brings it to the fore by turning it into a long flashback and by showing that Oscar's mother Wanda (a towering Octavia Spencer) was at one point so upset by his repeat convictions -- apparently for dealing -- that she hardened her heart against him for a difficult period of time. Now, he is torn between the life he wants to lead and the life he has led, conflicted and confused but also very close to his siblings, elders, and nuclear family. Part of the message, of course, is that people don't fall into either/or polarities, that just because a black man isn't a genteel scion of accomplishment like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it doesn't mean that he's a vicious incorrigible criminal who threatens the social fabric.
The kind of characterization of Oscar which Coogler and Jordan assemble, with internal contradictions, has the most sterling of pedigrees: Shakespeare was fond of it too. It is also poignant. In the dramatic world of the film, Coogler proposes that this day was different long before the BART train back from San Francisco pulled into the station; Oscar seems to have made a tacit New Year's resolution to straighten up and fly right. And this interpretation is apparently justified -- a Slate article cites statements by Oscar's loved ones which support the idea that Oscar planned to reform. In filmic terms, it is also supreme irony. The structure of the film is such that Oscar deals with various personal problems over the course of the first two-thirds of the film but reconciles with his girlfriend, celebrates his mom's birthday, and approaches 2009 -- soberly -- with hope for a better life. If you had never seen the headlines, you might be convinced there's about to be a happy ending.
What Coogler has crafted is a strong counter-narrative to the one pushed by so many whites from Middle America, who seize on whatever flaws they can find in the biographies of black men like Oscar and Trayvon. Fruitvale Station is a much-needed rebuttal to the myth of the "super-predator', a racist stereotype which, longtime social justice activist Tom Hayden makes plain in a recent article in The Nation, stems from a national propaganda campaign that dates from the 1980s -- a tainting of certain Americans (in other words, people of color) as so dangerous and bad at their core that society is in an "us or them' situation with them.
In order to continue to hold on to the racism that is so near and dear to them, Zimmerman supporters and, I suspect, Mehserle fans, yearned deeply to find a reason to justify murder. How upset they were at the slightest doubt, at the merest whisper that Trayvon might not be a murderous thug who had it coming. Coogler quietly dispenses with this element of Oscar's story by staking out a clear position on what caused the fight that led to the police being called in: a white man who frequently tormented Oscar back in prison suddenly attacks him on the subway car. This is a significant part of the story Fruitvale Station tells: the only thing that Oscar does that leads to any trouble with the police on Dec. 31, 2008 is that he fights another subway passenger in self-defense.
Eye-witness reports from the crowded and jostled passengers who saw the fight before the train pulled into Fruitvale are contradictory. But according to several witnesses, there was indeed a fight between Oscar and a white man who'd been in prison with him. Coogler changes several names of supporting characters who do wrong in the film, but Slate identifies the alleged pugilist as David Horowitch. (For the record, he denies being in the fight.) The film shows him playing it cool on the train when the police start dragging off the young black men -- thus illustrating how it never even occurred to the cops to look for a white guy.
Self-defense is the million-dollar concept right now, because Zimmerman's attorneys and cheering section have twisted things to try to make us believe Trayvon had no right of self-defense. Yet the negation of that right tends to be a red flag which reveals the underlying imbalance of power. Ask Iraqis whether they had a right of self-defense when the U.S. attacked them; ask Gazans where theirs was under Israel's bombardment. Coogler's film lets us see that Oscar at least ought to have had the right of self-defense.
That crucial prison flashback mid-way through the film is extremely helpful in this area, especially when you think about it afterward. It helps us to realize what Oscar must have gone through while in prison -- he appears beaten up, and refuses to answer his mother's questions about it. When the Horowitch character threatens him in jail (which happens in plain view with guards watching) Oscar responds as if his very survival is at stake. This preps us to understand Oscar's instantaneous transformation when the same guy reappears much later and lunges at him -- how Oscar switches in one breath from holiday relaxation to fierce defense mode.