One day before George Zimmerman was exonerated in the killing of Trayvon Martin, theaters began screening the film treatment of Oscar Grant’s final day and death at the hands of BART cop Johannes Mehserle. When I first saw that there was a movie about the incident, I ran off to Facebook and said something to the effect of “Well gee, I can’t imagine how THIS could be bad!” This attitude persisted basically right up until this Wednesday, when I watched it at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. Ari and I knew we wanted to write about it, and expected the film to be full of dumb crap we could expound upon in an article. Instead, the movie was actually pretty excellent, and I’m now left in the position of having to talk about a good movie, which always seems a bit harder.
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station follows Oscar Grant over the course of December 31st, 2008: New Year’s Eve, and his mother’s birthday. It explores the dilemmas he was faced with, the relationships he was managing, his struggle to keep on the straight-and-narrow. But before it does any of that, it shows us how he died.
It had been years since I last watched the video. Ari, and no doubt other audience members, had never seen it. It’s a gut-wrenching start for the movie, and sets up a sense of dread and anxiety that rarely eases. Knowing that as the movie progresses Grant is approaching his doom, you fear for him at almost every turn, every decision he makes, even as you know when and where it comes.
The movie follows Grant through his day, detailing his troubles (he has lost his job at Farmer Joe’s for being late too often, he’s trying to sell off an ounce of weed to make rent, his girlfriend has recently discovered his affair), but through his eyes, not the eyes of a filmmaker who knows Grant will be dead in less than 24 hours. It’s not a horror movie, and it’s barely a drama. It’s an intimate movie about a man gearing up for New Years’ and a birthday party, trying to balance dealing with his problems and putting them aside to enjoy the day. The camera follows him closely as he drives from task to task and texts family. Several times, it lingers in his car, watching idly for long stretches as he drives, leaving the viewer little to do but listen to Oscar’s music, look out Oscar’s driver’s side window.
Coogler relies on the viewer to fill in the rest. This is a movie about a man trying to live a normal life, but that video sticks in the mind. It is a primer. When Oscar makes plans for the future, when his daughter and six nieces and nephews jump on top of him and press his face into the carpet, when the BART train floats past in the background, it’s tainted by what we know. The opening video makes the film an experience in something Grant and other black men live with every day: the knowledge that ruin is around the corner.
In an early scene, Oscar stops at a gas station to refuel, and briefly befriends a stray pit bull. As he turns to finish filling up, there’s a metal crashing sound and he runs down the street, chasing a car that has hit something and sped away. It’s only when he gives up the chase and returns that we see the dog has been run over. Oscar carries the dog out of the street and comforts it until it dies. The scene is chaotic, jarring, a depiction of a stupid irresponsible accident. As the dog whines and leaks blood, it asks the viewer why there needs to be a whole movie to make people feel for Oscar Grant. Why do we need to live in his head for an hour-and-change to really grasp the injustice of his end?
Some reviews of the film praise its even-handedness, its refusal to go for cheap race-issues points. Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor says, concluding a rather dick-headed review,
Although Coogler surely wants his movie to serve as a weapon against racially charged police brutality, he’s smart enough, and sensitive enough, to know that this is above all a human tragedy – and not a political rallying point.
This film is not cheap, I’ll say that much. But it is certainly about race, and it is a rallying point. Hot on the heels of Zimmerman, this should be apparent. It doesn’t explore the outrage in the aftermath, doesn’t spend any time on Mehserle except for his half-minute relevance to Grant’s death. It is surprisingly fair, some may argue overly fair, depicting Mehserle as bumbling, shocked at his fatal shooting of Grant. The sharp blond character in the film in fact bears no resemblance to Mehserle, a doughy officer with black hair. Even this scene, Mehserle’s proverbial time to shine, is not about him. Not the man who killed Grant, but the cop who pulls the men out of the train, throws them to the ground, hunts down and drags Grant out when he tries to hide. Because police shootings of black men aren’t the real problem. They’re only a symptom of a racist institution. A society and police force that sees black men as pit bulls who must be restrained and controlled at the first sign of violence, a public that accepts the deaths of innocents if they’re not quite innocent enough. All tragedy is human tragedy. Oscar Grant’s tragedy was and remains political.
Fruitvale Station is something remarkable, especially for those viewers that live in the Bay Area. It’s the truest-feeling “true story” movie I’ve ever seen. Coogler, contrary to my first assumption, is an Oakland native, and the sense of place he brings to the film is unsettling. The movie not only takes place in Oakland, it feels like it is taking place in Oakland. And this is probably the point. OPD was recently threatened with federal takeover due to its failure to enact reforms against framing and police brutality. Occupy Oakland saw beatings, broken bones. Everything that led to Oscar Grant’s death is still going on. It is taking place in Oakland.
BART itself, a lifeline of the Bay, as the periodic strikes remind us, is used as a menacing motif throughout. It slides through yellow fog. Lurks nearby when Grant suffers defeat. Carries him down a long, dark tunnel, a single red taillight staring us in the face. Only someone like Coogler would know how important the sound of it is. And it’s there, the same as you hear five days a week on the way to work. A whispered reminder that everything still isn’t alright.