There are two tragedies in Fruitvale Station (2013). The first is Oscar Grant’s very existence that consists of constant struggle against economic and personal hardship. The second is that his life, as are all lives, were worth living and it was cruelly taken away. This movie, the feature debut of writer/director Ryan Coogler, has some of the power of great Italian neorealist works that were, as Fruitvale Station is, about poverty and injustice. I see a lot of Bicycle Thieves (1948) in this movie’s depiction of aimless hopelessness and much of the stupid outrage of Rome, Open City (1945) in its bitter and terrible finale. It argues that its central character is not a martyr but a person, a worthwhile person who never had anything and then lost it all.
It tells the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Oakland man trying his best to care for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He’s not doing a great job of it. He struggles to keep jobs and has shuffled in and out of the prison system, having dealt drugs and carried weapons. He’s disillusioned by the endless struggle of straight living and the empty promises of a life of crime.
Still, he remains a decent person, helping a stranger learn how to fry fish, aiding a person in need to find a restroom. A heartbreaking moment is composed by pure filmmaking. We see Oscar at a gas station, fueling his car. We hear tires squeal and Oscar takes off toward the street. “Hey!” he screams, “Come back!” As the car drives away, Oscar gives up his pursuit and walks back toward the gas station. It’s revealed the car hit a dog. Oscar picks up the injured animal and cries to the empty streets for someone to help him. Nothing. Life leaves the dog and in a devastating shot that hints at the depths of Oscar’s hopelessness, he can do nothing but abandon the body and return to his car.
On New Year’s Eve, Oscar and his friends hit the town. As they return in the subway, a fight breaks out and the police become involved. The cops are agitated and hostile and soon Oscar is shot. He dies later in the hospital. The power of a movie like this comes from its insistent pointlessness. Of course, it was pointless that Oscar died—the circumstances are idiotic and infuriating—but more crushing is the pointlessness of his entire existence. Days for Oscar were 24-hour segments of struggle, of trying to simply keep pace with the rising tide against him. What is the point of his life? Once you’ve asked that question, it’s not too difficult to ask the same question of your own. Happily, I live a different life than Oscar Grant, but I’ve felt some of his frustrations (on entirely different scales) and unlike him, the cards aren’t stacked against me. It would be easy to focus on Oscar’s murder, but Coogler wisely doesn’t. It’s simply the final stop on a road that was always headed this way. Coogler is able to get a lot more emotional traction by focusing on presenting a man who wanted to be good but kept finding that that amounted to very little in the eyes of employers, peers and the justice system. That’s why it’s so important that it amounts to something in our eyes, because it is something.
Coogler also avoids making a saint of Oscar. He does things we don’t like (like secretly texting other women when he’s around his girlfriend) and he has much anger in him. Coogler has made an earnest and subtle film about the role race plays in our lives, about how the barrier of what we see in the color of each other’s skin is the barrier that keeps us from knowing a man like Oscar Grant that even a 90-minute look at one day in his life can provide. That Oscar Grant, imperfect as Fruitvale Station presents him, was, like all black men, like all people, a human being who deserved decency and the option to live his life to its natural end seems remarkably obvious, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a reminder. More powerfully, Coogler is able to stress that while his murder is the most dramatic incident, Oscar’s entire life was an exercise in demeaning degradation, and more powerfully still, he subtly insinuates, by showing that Oscar was a man with hopes and dreams, that the cop who shot him must have had them also. This notion is unsettling for those brainwashed into expecting simple tales of good and bad. Life doesn’t work that way, and for people like Oscar, it hardly works at all.
Whenever I see a movie like this, which doesn’t have a traditional story as much as it simply follows a life as he or she attempts to survive, I am reminded of a powerful moment in Hoop Dreams (1994) in which a woman of extreme poverty asks the filmmakers, “Do you all wonder how am I living?” Fruitvale Station lets us in on that a little. Here is a man trying to get by and trying to find happiness in that and not being allowed to succeed at either. It’s a sad and wonderful movie.