Telling Oscar Grant’s story

July 16, 2013

Alessandro Tinonga reviews the new film Fruitvale Station, about the 2009 police murder of Oscar Grant on a BART train platform in Oakland, Calif.

THE ACQUITTAL of George Zimmerman, who murdered unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin last year, is a stark reminder that African American lives are expendable. Add to this the fact that more Black men are on probation or parole or in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, and you have a picture of the daily nightmare for African Americans in this country.

Against this backdrop, the new film Fruitvale Station makes the statement that the lives of Black people are just as valuable as any human being. The film follows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, before he was fatally shot by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009.

The film portrays the story of a young man struggling to survive. Good portions of the film were fictionalized in order to capture the story of one man's life before it was suddenly ended by police violence.

Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, and other members of her family were consulted by the filmmakers during production, and Johnson gave approval for the final cut. For the people who knew him best, Fruitvale Station creates a fitting picture of Oscar Grant as a person.

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station
Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan's performance as Grant is masterful, as is Octavia Spencer's role as Wanda Johnson. The film is Ryan Coogler's first feature-length movie as both writer and director.

In the film, Grant is a loving father, partner and son. He takes his daughter to day care while taking his partner, Sophina, to work and trying to find a way to make money. As a loyal son, he remembers to call his mother on her birthday and picks up fresh crabs for her party. He's loyal to his friends and loves Sophina.

At the same time, Grant is shown to be a person with faults. In the course of a day, the audience learns that he lost his job for being late, has served time in prison, has sometimes sold marijuana to make ends meet, and has a complicated relationship with his partner.

Like so many Black and Brown people in the U.S., Grant struggles to make a living in a system that gives very few favors, with the threat of prison and violence casting a shadow over him. Fruitvale Station shows Oscar Grant as flawed human who is trying to do the best he can with what he has.

Review: Movies

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler, starring Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz.

The filmmaker is able to humanize Grant in large part by painting a genuine picture of the Grant's world, and what it takes to survive in it. In addition to all the actual locations where many of the scenes were shot, and family banter about the Raiders-Steelers rivalry, the film recreates the real challenges of surviving in low-wage America.

Along with struggling to pay bills himself, Grant's sibling asks for help paying rent, and has to miss his mother's party so that she can pick up overtime hours. The needs of his family constantly pressure Oscar to sell marijuana to help put food on the table. Holding onto a job, let alone securing a new one, is nearly impossible with a criminal record.

THE HARSHEST reality comes during the film's climax when Grant is pulled off the BART train by police. In the film, Grant is pulled off the train following a fight that breaks out when he has a run-in with a former San Quentin inmate. The scuffle is a fictionalized plot device--in reality, Grant and his friends weren't involved in a fight on the train. They were profiled by police.

Despite the setup for the scene, the viciousness of the police brutality and the murder of Grant is painfully close to reality. The film depicts the horror of Grant's death with all the harsh details. While it's terrible to watch, the scene shows the hard truth of Oscar Grant's murder--it was unjustified and racist.

In the aftermath of the actual murder, defenders of Grant's murderer tried to paint Oscar as a thug in order to justify his death. One of the pillars of the New Jim Crow is to paint all Black and Brown men as criminals to justify their oppression, once again made painfully clear by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer.

Oscar Grant didn't deserve to die. The film's depiction of Grant isn't an attempt to glorify or prop him up as some sort of hero. Fruitvale Station shows Oscar Grant as flawed human with dignity. It's more dignity than he got in the media in the two years following his death.

Everyone who sees this film must know that, as powerful and moving as it is, to truly honor Oscar Grant, we must keep struggling for justice.

In the first six months of 2012, a Black person was gunned down by racist cops or vigilantes every 36 hours on average. Had it not been for Oscar Grant's family, dozens of committed activists, and the thousands of supporters that struggled for justice, his murderer would have never been arrested.

Without struggle, Grant's story would not have been told and this film would not have been made.

Already, some people are trying to use Fruitvale Station to cover up the fact that police brutality and racism continue to plague our society. At a special premiere for the film in Oakland, a featured guest was Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.

Quan used police to smash Occupy Oakland and was also complicit in covering up the murder Alan Blueford, an unarmed Black high school student who was shot and killed by police. She had the gall to tell reporters as she walked the red carpet, "If you all could make clear it was BART police and not Oakland police... I hope the movie brings some peace and reflections on behavior."

Quan, whose police force regularly terrorizes Black and Brown people, has no business asking others to "reflect" on their behavior.

For those of us who want to see justice for Oscar Grant and all the young Black men like him, Fruitvale Station is one for our side. It finally tells the other side of the story of a young man that was a victim of the racist criminal justice system.

To fully honor Oscar Grant, a new civil rights movement must be built to stop racist violence in America.

Further Reading

From the archives