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Before sitting down to see Fruitvale Station at Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theater, I had heard that for Oakland residents the experience would be more like reliving memories than seeing a Hollywood film.
The movie opens with one of the infamous cell-phone recordings of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s shooting at the Fruitvale BART Station that went viral on Youtube after his death at the hands of a transit policeman on New Year’s day 2009. Everyone in the theater froze, we all winced in anticipation of the shot we had seen and heard so many times since that day.
But, what Fruitvale Station does as a film is unpack the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) in just one day, his mother’s birthday, New Year’s Eve. Grant is young, conflicted, he wants to marry Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his young daughter, Tatiana, but struggles to make ends meet to support them and his family. The film does not portray Grant as a saint, but instead as a young man at a crossroads.
It is hard to watch Grant sitting on rocks overlooking the Bay in cerebral thought as he tosses a bag of weed he had planned to sell into the water, a pledge to earn a legitimate income for the sake of his family in the new year. It’s hard to watch him mourn a stray dog bleeding to death on the side of the road, and even harder to watch him drop his daughter off with her cousins and babysitter for the night, jokingly getting her to brush her teeth and reassuring her he would be back before she woke up, while, as the viewer, you know his last living hours are dwindling.
Perhaps another reason watching Fruitvale Station is like reliving memories for Oakland audiences was because of the BART itself. Every year, on New Year’s Eve, BART runs free and longer hours in order to keep drunk drivers off the road. The trains themselves become moving parties with brown bags, portable stereos and some bold passengers lighting up joints and blunts on board. The evening is probably no more than a nuisance to BART staff than a danger to them or passengers.
Oscar’s use of his cell phone throughout the film, a flip phone with T9 word texting, highlights the changing shift in technology and its role in the trial of the BART policeman who shot him, Johannes Mehserle.
Mehserle was ultimately found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison and released after 11 months. But, like the protests and the events of Occupy Oakland that were to come after Grant’s murder, every horrifying detail of the shooting was caught on cell phone cameras, from a variety of angles, by BART passengers– a reminder that in the age of social media nothing anyone does exists in a vacuum, but also a reminder that the wheels of justice don’t turn for all Americans, no matter how horrific the crime and how large the audience that witnesses it.
The movie handles the actual shooting in a way that does not challenge Mehserle’s assertion he was reaching for his taser and accidentally brought out his gun instead.
It shows the situation as it probably was, an out-of-control mess. A train full of drunk people at 2am who got into a fight, transit police with badges, power trips and guns but no real idea or ability on how to quell the situation and keep the trains moving.
There are racially heated words exchanged between the officer and Grant and his friends as they sat up against the wall of the BART platform. There is a scuffle, a loss of focus and then a gun shot.
Fruitvale Station was reliving memories for Oakland residents, at least for me. I moved to the Fruitvale neighborhood in the summer of 2008. I buy my groceries at the store Grant worked at and have waited in the emergency room he died in for hours on end to be told I couldn’t be seen because they had too many shootings that night.
On New Year’s 2009, I like Grant, was also 22-years-old and drunk on BART with my friends. After a night in San Francisco, we got back on BART and got off at the Fruitvale Station a few trains ahead of Grant. I got home safe, but would wake up the next day to the news, watch the videos on Youtube and join the protests.
But, what the movie does is not focus on the aftermath of the killing as far as what we saw on the news and in the streets, instead it focuses on Tatiana Grant, the little girl who lost her father. When the film was over, the audience sat shocked, many of us crying, leaving the theater in a funeral procession, as we all had to put our notions of the event into perspective. What is the takeaway for the City of Oakland and the greater international audience of Fruitvale Station?
The senselessness of it all.
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