The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 murder of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin is another sad miscarriage of justice in a fragile system of checks and balances.
It reminded many of a time when another young life was blown apart, its impact still lingering.
It was in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 when a young man named Oscar Grant III lost his life. It was at the BART Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif., a section of the country noted for civil unrest and ongoing organized protests on the subject of justice and equality.
He was shot in the back by a transit officer, who would later state that he meant to reach for his Taser and instead unsheathed his revolver. Grant was unarmed and restrained at the time. The bullet ripped into his back and killed him.
What should have been a great day—a fresh page in rebuilding a troubled life—instead became another dark page entry in “modern-day lynchings” of men of color in the United States of America.
Debut filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed the indie feature, presents a balanced, fictionalized account of Grant’s last day on earth. Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights”) plays Oscar, a young man of the streets who was no stranger to incarnation.
His journey to rebuild his life was motivated, in part, to mend his relationship with his girlfriend (played by Melonie Diaz) and to provide better opportunities for his young daughter (played by Ariana Neal).
What filmmaker Coogler does beautifully is not trivialize Oscar’s last day. He steps, skillfully, away from heavy-handed sentimentality. The film is green, earnest and raw, and that’s what makes it work.
Oscar’s day unfolds without any particular rhythm or rhyme; it’s just another New Years’ day. And yet because we know the tragic end this particular day will have, there is a build of tension that’s almost unbearable.
Oscar has just lost his job at a grocery store; he stops by to pick up some fish for his mother’s birthday party that evening. Veteran thespian Octavia Spencer portrays his mother, presenting a picture of a woman doing the best she can with unapologetic candor.
The film and the filmmaking team weren’t trying to point big fingers at a bigger problem. They are not trying to turn Grant into a martyr either. What “Fruitvale Station” did was show how vulnerable we all are and to shrink that “distance” between us. Through good storytelling, we have a way to honor the life of another human being. It also gives viewers ways to examine their own lives and try to make each day that we have left productive and memorable.
“Fruitvale Station,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler, and produced by Forest Whitaker and the Weinstein Company, opens in select theaters this week. It’s currently playing at the Angelika Film Center and Loews Lincoln Square. Visit www.fruitvalefilm.com for more information.