First-time African-American feature filmmaker and Oakland native Ryan Coogler, 27, gives us Fruitvale Station as a symbolic recapitulation of the Stations of the Cross, recounting the last 30-plus hours of Oscar Grant III's life. Grant was the African American 22-year-old celebrating New Year's Eve with friends in San Francisco, who, on the return trip at 2 a.m., was attacked and provoked into a scuffle, exited the train at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, and was murdered by BART officers in what can only be described as a minor police riot.
Oscar Grant died on the morning of January 1, 2009, immediately entering the pantheon of victims of American racism. People's World covered the story at the time.
Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant not as a deity or man/God without sin; but Grant's body, like the transcendent Passion of Christ, similarly agonizes with the moral trespasses of the society around him.
Some thorough independent research might determine if the filmmaker has exaggerated Grant's positive qualities: He cares for animals, he's generous and loving toward his family (including in-laws), he's an adoring father to his daughter Tatiana, he's trying hard to support his Latina girlfriend (and mother of his child), he offers help free willingly to strangers at the supermarket and on the street, he's a supportive, fun-loving friend, seemingly well liked by all.
At the same time, he's recently been let go from his supermarket job for being late (and tries to hide it out of embarrassment and in hopes of recovering it), he's had a small-time career as a dope dealer that he's now trying to end, and he's done time at San Quentin.
Our inference is unmistakably to see Grant as a Jesus-like figure, almost incredibly "post-racial" in this polarized nation, which the viewer may or may not accept as faithful to the historical Grant. Either way, the story stands for itself: Here's a young guy under a lot of pressure who, despite his faults, oozes humanity as he tries again and again to be connected and make good on his better instincts.
The larger society, though, sees him otherwise: not as a person but as a feared archetype. Young Black men simply do not have the leeway to be playful, brash, or macho as they explore their emerging manhood in the same way young whites are allowed. Excesses in whites are excused as "boys will be boys." For Blacks, there's a fast track from lousy inner-city schools through the War on Drugs to prison, as Michelle Alexander describes in "The New Jim Crow."
Apparently, Oscar had no one, no visible Oscar Grant II or I, to teach him the "rules" that Black parents still have to pass on to their children in the shadow of Stand Your Ground, to act as the "colonized" in front of the police. "Yes sir, no sir," or the cops will beat the life out of you. The aggressive persona Grant adopted in prison for self-preservation against Aryan Nation-style racists was not going to work on the outside.
As in an Easter Passion Play, we know what will happen from the opening sequence of video and cell phone documentation of the fatal incident. Omens along the way-sirens, fireworks sounding like gunshots, the memory of a swollen red face in prison, a dog killed by a hit and run driver, Mama Wanda suggesting the kids take the BART instead of driving, anticipating New Year's Day fun, the countdown to midnight-all heighten the suspense.
Fruitvale Station is meant to keep Oscar Grant lifted up out of the numbing mass of statistics, recently Trayvon Martin, now Jordan Russell Davis (whose killer will soon be going on trial in Florida), going back to Medgar Evers, the students at Jackson State, Emmett Till, the Scottsboro teenagers, and countless lynchings lost to memory.
We are not afforded the luxury of catharsis. This is not Greek tragedy where the end is pre-determined by the fates and the gods, where man is powerless to intervene. No, this is an American tragedy, where we know-we must believe-that the script is not already written. It does not have to be this way.
Aside from Jordan, Octavia Spencer deserves a powerful shout-out as Grant's mom Wanda, also Melonie Diaz as the girlfriend Sophina.
This is passionate, masterful work by a sensitive, insightful artist, who takes a specific American martyrdom and makes a universal statement. It won Best First Film award at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. Ryan Coogler will certainly be heard from again.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
2013, Rated R, 90 min.