Fruitvale Station: 24 Hours To Truly Live

Fruitvale Station tells the true story of the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant, who was murdered by BART cops on New Years Day, in 2009.
“Next stop—Fruitvale Station", announces the BART driver.
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And you want to yell out at Oscar Grant: Don’t get off the fucking train, Oscar! Because you know when he does, he’s going to die.

Some people may not know that going into this movie, that this is the biopic of the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life. Some people may not have any clue who Oscar Grant was.

That was my situation, when, back in July, 2010, I was in the Bay when the Johannes Mehserle verdict was announced. I watched with increasing interest as the people I had met back then started reacting to reports there would be a violent backlash by people who didn't like the trial's outcome.

Unlike George Zimmerman, Mehserle didn’t walk. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, i.e., of accidentally killing Oscar Grant. Some whole business communities around the Bay started boarding up their windows, and closing down their retail districts, as soon as the verdict was announced. It seemed like an extreme reaction to me. So I started asking what this was all about.

Now, most of the people I initially asked were white, and white of a certain elite, privileged, estate, as one kind of gets a lot in the Bay and particularly in Palo Alto, where I was staying. These white people viewed Oscar Grant’s killing as “too bad”, but as they told me, the officer was just trying to deal with a bad situation, and black people, especially over in the East Bay, were always looking to have an excuse to riot. I was surprised to hear anybody—way to the left of Alabama—say stuff like that. And especially in the People's Republic of San Francisco Bay. Fortunately, I had the chance to ask a couple of non-white people about Oscar Grant’s killing, and they had a very different view of things, and they encouraged me to watch the video of Grant’s shooting, which was available online. The white people I asked about the case didn't mention this.

I watched the video, or actually videos.

And I have never seen such an obvious case of a stupid fucking pig (i.e. asshole cop) murdering a citizen. The police executed Oscar Grant like he was a dog. There was NO QUESTION about it, as the incident was vid-captured by just about everybody at the Fruitvale Station platform that night, early in the morning of January 1, 2009.

In Ryan Coogler’s excellent film, Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is depicted as a man struggling to get his life together after having taken some wrong turns. There is no question in the movie that Grant hasn’t been an angel. He’s cheated on his girlfriend. He’s so habitually late to his job he’s recently lost it, and he therefore sells drugs to make the rent. And in the recent past he was doing time at San Quentin.

All these things weigh heavily on Grant (played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Michael B. Jordan) who on the last day of his life starts taking some action to do things differently. He has reached that stage in life many people encounter, just before beginning the process of growing up, where Grant realizes his old bullshit ways are not consistent with hanging onto the things he values—particularly his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz), and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Grant is a man looking for a way, a better way, to get safely home. And that is the metaphor of course that plays out to the tragic end.

This is explored by Coogler as a journey of brief, poignant, encounters Grant has with all kinds of people, from family to total strangers, on the last day of his life. Some of these will prove tantalizingly promising, like the meeting Grant has with a man and his pregnant wife during New Year’s Eve celebrations on the streets of San Francisco. The man, in a brief discussion with Grant, explains that life has more possibilities than Grant might have allowed, and that, for example, it was OK for Grant to marry Sophina, even though he had no job and little money. Then the man offers Grant his business card, and tells him to call him, and one gets the idea this could have led to something positive for Grant.

We are reminded in this vignette about how life has this amazing power to bring good things in chance meetings. Unfortunately, for Grant, some of the chance meetings he has and the choices he makes regarding them, will instead remind us about the amazing power of life to also bring truly horrible things to us.

This is brought up most starkly, and sadly, by the fact that the one character, Oscar’s mom (played by Octavia Spencer) who is always looking out for her baby, ends up giving him the most fatal advice of all: take the BART she says, as Oscar and Sophina prepare to go partying in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. It’s safer than driving.

Well. It should have been. But again, fatal encounters on the way to Fruitvale Station will make it something else again.

It is interesting the way Coogler chooses to treat the police, and particularly Johannes Mehserle, Grant’s killer. Unlike Grant, whose life is presented with great detail, and sympathy, Mehserle and the other cops on the Fruitvale Station platform appear as little more than the hit-and-run driver in an early scene where Grant gets one of many presages of his own death.

Mehserle, who is not named in the movie, shows up looking like a poster child for the Gestapo. He says nothing to Grant except to repeat the police mantra being shouted at Grant and everyone around, who were videoing the police thuggery:
“SHUT THE FUCK UP AND PUT THAT PHONE AWAY!” 
And then, after Grant complies, and after the cops decide to arrest him, pushing his face into the concrete, Mehserle shoots Grant in the back.

A lot of the action in Fruitvale Station takes place in phone calls, text messages, and of course phone-cam videos. Here, the fatal text Oscar sends encouraging his friends to take the BART for their New Year's Eve partying trip to San Francisco.
One thing Fruitvale Station pounds home: none of us should ever shut the fuck up and put away our phones. The state has its surveillance. And the citizens have theirs. The only way terrible shit like the killing of Oscar Grant can stop is to NEVER obey the police orders to stop showing the world exactly what they do. Vid the fucking cops. Vid the fucking pols. Vid the fucking NSA—after all, they already have your number.

Finally, and I think this is a deeper, maybe more hopeful, message of Fruitvale Station, Coogler is also saying that, yes, he is telling a story about a doomed man, but that is of course the same for all our stories. It is just most of us expect to live longer than another 24 hours. And most of us will even make it. But along the way to his fatal encounter, Grant has the chance to experience, one more time, the abundance of love and joy in his actually very rich life. And he even begins to acquire some wisdom about how to proceed regarding this treasure. As we should know, many stories that we would want to end happily—for a little longer anyway—just never get the chance in real life. That doesn't erase the value of the insights Grant got in his last day.

And sure, that's almost certainly an idealizing of the real Oscar Grant's final hours, but it is also a statement about how any of us can turn things around, if we are given the right chance at the right time—and if some stupid cop doesn't shoot us.

Remember Oscar Grant by seeing this very fine movie, and by working in your community to see to it that these kinds of crimes stop happening.

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