On the morning of January 1, 2009, 22-year-old unarmed Oscar Grant was shot and killed by police at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. This movie, made in 2013, depicts the last day of Oscar’s life. This is a true story.
Throughout the day of December 31 we see Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) in an attempt to get his life in order. He’s reconciled with Sophina, his girlfriend and the mother of their daughter, he pleads with his former grocery store manager to get his job back, he plans a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer) and makes sure to pick out the card that will most irk his sister. In a flashback we see Oscar in jail, temper flaring and almost coming to fisticuffs with another inmate in front of his mother, who decides she can no longer see him there. We see present-day Oscar selling marijuana from his car, then dumping it all into the ocean. Things may not be going as he’d hoped, but it’s clear that he’s trying his best to get that fresh start.
After his mother’s birthday party, Oscar and Sophina join their friends and head out to the city to enjoy the New Year’s festivities. Encouraged by his mother to take public transportation, the group breaks out into song and dance when they realize they’ll be stuck on the train for the stroke of midnight. All seems well until Oscar is recognized by the man with whom he served time. A fight breaks out between the two. Oscar’s friends scatter and Oscar hides among the people on train until a police officer barges in and pulls him out. The other participant in the fight is not searched for or touched. There are handcuffs. There is a knee on the neck. And there is a gunshot.
It is hard to come to terms with the fact that this exact story keeps happening, over and over again. It may be easy, for some, to tell themselves that these people shouldn’t have been where they were, shouldn’t have done what they did, shouldn’t have fought back. Somehow the onus is put on the victim to keep from being shot and killed. It is a lie we tell ourselves so that we can believe in the system, believe that we are being kept safe, believe that we would act differently and this would never happen to us. But it can. It does. And there, but for the grace of God, go you or I.
You cry not because it’s a horrific true story that happened to one person once. You cry because it’s a horrific true story that has happened to multiple people, multiple times and will continue to happen, and you feel helpless to do anything about it. But, if there’s one thing we can do, if there’s one opportunity Fruitvale Station offers us, it is to educate ourselves on these lives cut short by police brutality, to not be complicit in our ignorance of these events. Director Ryan Coogler’s decision to include cell phone footage captured during the event ensures that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the racial unrest and misuse of power rampant in our country. It is a movie as heartbreaking as it is necessary.