3 Stars – Thought Provoking
On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant died at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, after having been shot the night before on the Fruitvale Station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Oscar was returning from a New Year’s Eve celebration in San Francisco, having taken BART in order to be safe on a night noted for crazy drunk drivers. In the investigation that followed, Oscar was determined to have been an innocent bystander who was killed by a bullet from the gun of a BART police officer in a scuffle that ensued on the Fruitvale train platform.
If this story had been anywhere besides Oakland, it might have been a bigger story than just another nightly statistic in a rough gang-laden town. Oakland is an industrial bedroom community in the shadow of San Francisco. During the war years in the 1940’s thousands of African Americans migrated to the city to work in the shipyards, a place where for the first time many poor men were making a decent living. Following World War II, most of the white population moved to the emerging suburbs leaving the inner city as a repository of out-of-work men and women desperately trying to hold onto some semblance of family life. Over the last 50 years, Oakland has gone from bad to worse as a place where murders are a daily occurrence.
What makes “Fruitvale Station” a timely film is the national debate that has raged since the controversial trial following the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the continuing realization that black and white Americans more often than not see justice through different lenses. Talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh rail against the media and the President of the United States for fueling racial divisions regarding justice and the right of any individual to defend themselves against criminal elements. African American leaders acknowledge that we have made progress since the “Jim Crow” days of the mid-twentieth century, but the painful memories of innocent young people being shot down on a regular basis for petty crimes while their shooters go free, is still a strong and current perception of their daily reality.
“Fruitvale Station” takes us on a tour of the 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) life before he died. He is not a man without fault, struggling against the social and economic pressures of living in a poor urban environment. We see his weaknesses, but also his desire to be a good father. We see the strength and faith of his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) who despite overwhelming odds has instilled a sense of right and wrong in her son. We also see the circumstances that often confront young black males in poor communities where they are often unwitting suspects in the eyes of the police. It is also troubling, but easy to see, how out-of-control any situation can get when local police get into fearful confrontations. Regardless of what was right or wrong, an innocent man was shot and killed, a community of friends believes that justice will never be served, and a mother has to grieve over the loss of her son while trying to maintain her faith in utterly trying circumstances.
“Fruitvale Station” is a powerful story, but it doesn’t give any easy answers to the questions of racial perceptions in our country. If anything, it is a sobering reminder that there is still a series of questions that need to be debated in America before we will truly become a color-blind society. Oscar Grant’s death may be the opportunity to open a dialogue that can lead to a point of national healing in this racial divide.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The ability of this film to present both the positive and negative aspects of Oscar’s personality is what makes it valuable. Racial, moral and personality factors are a part of every situation in a multicultural nation. How can we use this film to gain understanding, justice and peace in our nation?
2. When a tragedy like this occurs we quickly begin to think, “what if…” Oscar’s mother asks, What if I hadn’t told him to take the BART? Do you believe that engaging in what if’s is helpful or harmful?
3. The statistical inequities of the number of minorities in our prisons is alarming. What do you believe will correct this?