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Oscar Grant, Witness for Trayvon Martin: "Fruitvale Station" review

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Oscar Grant, police shooting victim in Oakland by Wikipedia

George Zimmerman's defense team essentially put Trayvon Martin on trial, so maybe the prosecution should have called Oscar Grant to testify. If it didn't make a difference that Trayvon was dead, the fact that Oscar was dead shouldn't have been an obstacle either -- he might have been especially qualified, since both Oscar and Trayvon were black men gunned down in their prime by those supposedly watching out for public safety.

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Fortunately, in the new film Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is essentially a character witness for Trayvon, and for scores of other young black men who've died at the hands of "law enforcement'. Oscar, only 22, was shot on New Year's Eve, 2008, by a BART subway police officer in Northern California. The details of his demise are so extreme they seem like they'd have to be one-of-a-kind: Oscar, an unarmed black subway passenger who was not being violent when the officers decided to arrest him, was shot dead in the back while prone, face-down, on the Fruitvale station platform, in full view of a packed train of witnesses. The defense claimed by white BART cop Johannes Mehserle was that he mistook his gun for a taser. Consequently, he received a sentence of just 2 years -- and served only 11 months.

But behind the specifics of Oscar Grant's horrific tragedy lies the even greater horror and tragedy inherent in the fact that this kind of extra-judicial execution is commonplace. A recent study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that 136 unarmed blacks were shot dead last year by police, security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes. This adds up to an extra-judicial killing of an African-American every 28 hours. The new film doesn't address these stats, but it certainly stems from that kind of awareness.

The fiction feature Fruitvale Station, winner of big prizes at the Sundance and Cannes Festivals, requires a generous supply of Kleenex. Though its simple presentation is elegant and spare, it makes you weep not just for Oscar and his family, or for Trayvon and his, but for the state of America in general. Without preaching or heavy-handedness, with the utmost of subtlety, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler shows convincingly that something is very wrong out there.

Though the genre is character study, this drama is named after the infamous subway station. It isn't titled after Oscar, I suspect, because the socially-urgent point of this carefully researched docudrama is that Oscar didn't die because of anything he did, but because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you're a young, poor, black man in America, it can be the wrong place and wrong time almost anywhere, almost anytime.

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Coogler does use some of the actual cell phone camera footage of the incident as an opening prelude, but his focus in the film is on supplying the visuals that have been missing from our consciousness: how Oscar spent his last day alive. He shows us what Oscar valued, what he regretted, and what he hoped for, making sure we get to know Oscar intimately so we can truly mourn for him. The script, which Coogler wrote after perusing the cell phone footage, interviewing the family, and researching Oscar's life and character, depicts Oscar as a loving young father and boyfriend, a considerate son who actually listens to his mom these days, and a likeable family man whose grandmother dotes on him.

Movie still from climax of .Fruitvale Station. by Weinstein Company

Oscar, charismatically played with what seems like effortless naturalness by Michael B. Jordan, is a complex person here. He is often joyfully childlike, especially when playing with his 4-year old daughter Tatiana (played by Ariana Neal, a great find) yet he also falls into deep, serious introspection over the course of the day. He does seem to genuinely love his girlfriend Sophina, a feisty and very watchable Melonie Diaz, and he genuinely wants them to have a future together. Yet he also has a penchant to flirt, and he has been caught doing much more. Moreover, he has trouble showing up on time for work, and has lost his job because of it. When the movie starts, he is preparing to sell drugs again to pay the rent.

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.

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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.

Trayvon Martin by File photo

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.

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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